My Journey with Food Justice in School and Communities

By STEPHANIE SAINTILIEN

Hello! My name is Stephanie Saintilien, I am a recent alum of The City College of New York and currently a Strategy & Partnerships Program Associate with AmeriCorps VISTA, in New York City’s Community Schools.

Last Spring I left the historic CUNY (City University of New York) institution with a major in English, a minor in Journalism, and an engaging point of view on health policy. My intrigue/interest in Journalism will allow me to expand and branch out to continue my studies in film criticism. Simultaneously, I planned to further develop and explore the world of health justice honing on the facet of food production and justice.

Last year I was accepted into the Colin Powell Partners for Change Fellowship as a Health Justice fellow under the leadership of Shena Elrington, the Director of Immigrant Rights, Racial Justice, and Health Care Access at the Center for Popular Democracy. As a fellow, we’re required to work with specific internships geared towards our work of interest and advocacy. I was hired to work as a Development Intern for The Sylvia Center (TSC), which is a nonprofit organization, whose mission is to teach young people on how to eat well through hands on experiences[1]. The Sylvia Center administers different after school culinary programs throughout four boroughs in New York City (Queens, Manhattan, The Bronx, and Brooklyn) as well as the Hudson Valley County area in upstate New York. Their programs teach children from the ages of 7 through young adulthood to acquire crucial cooking skills, while exposing their students to sustainable ways of eating well.

Working at The Sylvia Center broadened my knowledge on sustainability to the facet of food justice. I was always aware on the importance of eating well, maintaining a healthy diet, and buying locally but was unaware of the technicalities and intricacies of food justice. My time at The Sylvia Center gifted me with an entirely new outlook and appreciation for the work nutritionists and health advocates do in terms of educating the world on how we can help save our planet while benefiting from it as well. I also obtained a deeper understanding of the importance and need in advocating for sustainable foods and lifestyles, which is open to exponential growth.

In addition to my work with TSC, my focus area group of Health Justice sought research pertaining to different disparities within the American health care system. Inspired by the work done at TSC, I decided to focus my research on advocating for an initiative that implements mandatory cooking classes into the New York City Public School System. Child obesity rates have reached and outstanding high in America, especially in New York. According to statistics based off of a 2013 study done by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), over 10% of the adolescent population in New York is obese; that’s over 9,000 children. This statistic accompanies the 13% of adolescents who are overweight as well[2]. Factors such as misconceptions proposed by the food industry on what’s healthy and what’s not, availability, and economic stance contributes to these numbers.

The push for cooking as a mandatory has already been implemented in Portland, Oregon through the program Curriculum of Cuisine[3]. The Curriculum of Cuisine is a culinary program that provides courses in a common classroom setting within the Portland School District. Program Director Maggie Michaels works with advisors and facilitators of schools throughout Portland encouraging her program which supports rigorous academic learning whilst delivering essential culinary education. The program encourages youth wellness and academic achievement by instilling culinary skills in students through high school. If the New York City Department of Education followed the example of the Curriculum of Cuisine, we could look forward to a demographic of healthier, happier children with bright futures.

There are countless injustices within our food system that contribute to the outrageous obesity rates in America as well as other preventable illnesses. I believe with strong advocacy and push for food literacy, we’ll be able to change such outcomes and look forward to a more sustainable world. The technique in knowing how to cook is apart of food literacy. Food literacy is the understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, the environment, and our economy. Making specific decisions and being consciously aware of what food you buy holds great importance in living sustainably. Many people focus on the environmental aspect of sustainability; purchasing sodium chloride and sodium carbonate free cleaning agents, using mass transit and such.

Nutritionists and health advocates petition for initiatives that specifically target a demographic that is particularly under served concerning proper health needs. Physical outreach and service executed in low income communities and communities that are commonly overlooked is the kind of impertinent action needed to help change the face of sustainability and food justice.

In 2008 I traveled to Madrid, Spain with my high school to do missions work with Betel International, a missionary based organization missioned to care for the needs of recovering drug addicts. While in Spain, we worked with the organization ministering to recovering addicts in their facilities as well their church congregation and the people of Madrid. My trip to Spain sparked my passion for travel and service. I knew that servicing others needed to be incorporated with my future endeavors.

Serving the community can be explored through different avenues, especially in sustainability. Reflecting from my past experiences, I’ve found that working closely with and within communities, participating in physical outreach has been beneficial in terms of outcome. When working closely in communities, one can get a sense of the demographic they’re trying to support, and observe the problem first hand versus receiving an objective analysis. I was able to receive this perspective earlier this year. In studying food literacy, and sustainable development remotely one can gain an entirely different experience compared to physically going out and engaging in fieldwork. Earlier this year, January 2016, I traveled to Senegal, Africa with a group of fellow CUNY students to discover the environmental need in the Global South and explore sustainable opportunities. Working closely with representatives from the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education[4], which is an organization that offers education on sustainable development, we were not only taught on the different variables put into sustainable development but also exposed to those factors through fieldwork.

While in Senegal, my colleagues and I learned on ecovillages, their function, and importance of their existence to a dying earth. An ecovillage is a community where the inhabitants seek to live according to ecological principles causing little to no impact on the environment. Even in studying this definition, my colleagues and I were still a bit insecure on our understanding of the critical value of ecovillages. During our first week, we set out on a day trip to visit the fairly new ecovillage in Mbour, an area outside the city center of Dakar, called Mbacombel meaning the sweetest baobab. My colleagues and I were given a tour of the village and shown the different methods and practices used to maintain the natural cycle of healing and giving back to the earth.

In studying the functions of ecovillages, we learned of the natural possibilities and techniques one can use in terms of agriculture in everyday activities. The village base their methods and technology from traditional cultural practices that are natural. For example, instead of using coal and other burning materials such as wood, the people of Mbacombel use cow dung as a resource for heating and cooking purposes. This technique is an act of contributing to the use of renewable resources. Using cow dung as a source of fuel saves money on buying burning materials and burns faster than those said materials. It also promotes minimal environmental pollution, properly disposes of animal waste but unfortunately increases the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere.

On waste, the village formulated a system in which the villagers can properly separate and dispose of their garbage. Garbage bins are color coded to help maintain this organized system. Black garbage bins indicate non-compost waste, while brown garbage bins indicate compostable waste. Recyclables are then collected and sold to factories back in central Dakar.

Every family in Mbacombel owns their own eco-farm and is responsible for its maintenance as well as maintaining the sustainable cycle within the village as a whole. An eco-farm produces all natural seasonal produce using natural methods of agriculture as well as natural non-harmful pesticides.

If the disposal system, fuel and food production is sustainable, of course the energy used has to be as well. Mbacombel was gifted 5 solar panel blocks by the Global Ecovillage Network. The blocks are sprinkled throughout the village and provide a great percentage of the energy used in the village. The amount of energy sourced from the panels’ powers 95 streetlights and charges electronics as well as laptops. The energy garnered from the laptops can run on about 14 hours of use without recharging. Now that’s great sustainable energy.

Our experience in Mbacombel, explicated our comprehension of sustainability and ecovillages. The key perspective of an ecovillage is to promote sustainability on all fronts where people are in harmony with the earth, and working in conjunction with what nature gives.

The majority of our time in Senegal was spent in the eco-commune Guédé Chantier located in the northern most area of Saint Louis, Senegal. Unlike the other ecovillages we visited (Mbacombel and Diarra), Guédé lacks in many of the common practices of a model ecovillage. For example: the majority of the village uses electric gas tanks for cooking, there is a substantial lack of fertile usable ground for healthy agriculture, along with miles and miles of landfills and waste. Living in Guédé exposed us to the basis of village life while observing the need of a community that has the proper tools to operate as a sustainable operative. As service learners and advocates, my colleagues and I missioned to work on projects based on the need of the village to encourage sustainable methods of living.

My group focused on restoring activity of the Genetic Resource Center, which is a center that produces natural, local crops and seeds for inhabitants within the village. Due to unfortunate circumstances, activity in the GRC ceased in 2009. In 1981, the women of the village established a committee of 300 persons called the Women’s Permaculture Gardens. The gardens are divided into four sections, each assigned and managed by four different women. As a group, we set out to reestablish the relationship between the GRC and the Women’s Permaculture Gardens where connections from outside agencies, mainly European, can be minimized. This would help promote the local economy of the village and area.

As a first step towards restoration, the vast dry ground of the gardens needed fertilizing. Another observation deduced while living in Guédé were the copious piles of cow waste. Due to a lack of resources, we pushed for the natural practice of fertilizing soil. My group and I sought out to collect cow dung from around the village, transport it to the gardens, and scatter it on the parched ground. Thankfully we were able to fulfill all three tasks of collecting the dung, distributing it, and ensuring a reestablishment between the two groups. Unfortunately we were unable to see an actual exchange of seeds and other natural produce. We hope to return to Guédé sometime in the future and see the village flourishing with harvest from both groups.

The four dimensions of sustainability all work together to form a holistic system where the earth and its people are supported. Social, cultural or spiritual, ecological, and economic aspects all contribute function of a healthy world. The social dimension constitutes the notion where every individual in a community has a specific role and is accountable for their fellow neighbor. The cultural dimension emphasizes the importance of maintaining cultural and religious practices[5]. In maintaining the cultural traditional religious practices of a village prevents the possibility of diminishing sacred history. Many natural sustainable agricultural techniques and practices are often derived from traditional methods. Logically speaking, the reusable resources villages used before the technological age were very sustainable and gave back to the earth naturally.

According to the Global Ecovillage Network, community is defined as a sense of recognizing and relating to others while sharing common resources and providing mutual aid, emphasizing holistic an preventative health practices, providing sustenance to all members, integrating marginal groups, promoting unending education, encouraging unity through respect for differences, and fostering cultural expression. I completely agree with the GEN’s understanding of community. The core of communal engagement is to empower those directly affected.

Being physically present in the community and seeing the need first hand impacts progression versus observing from an objective perspective. This was clearly seen effective at the end of my Guédé experience. Not only visiting, but actually living and partaking in the village lifestyle provided me with a new outlook on culture, life, the earth, the people in it, and of course sustainability.

My work in sustainability is just getting started. After graduation I plan to work on a farm to further my knowledge on sustainable agriculture as well as food sustainability. I also plan on encouraging the understanding and ability to make informed choices that support one’s health, community, and the environment to those who are unaware. Doing this not only in communities within the United States, but also around the world. Sustainability offers endless, fruitful possibilities — and I’m ready to explore.

Stephanie Saintilien is an alum of The City College of New York, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in Journalism. She is currently a Strategy & Partnerships Program Associate with AmeriCorps VISTA, in New York City’s Community Schools Stephanie is also directing her passion for film and writing into a career in film criticism. Along with film, Stephanie enjoys offering her spare time in missions, community service, as well as sustainability. With her newfound passion in food justice, Stephanie hopes to expand her understandings on the food justice movement by working closely with natural foods while advocating for sustainable lifestyles. She maintains interests in photography, poetry, and travel.

[1] https://nccd.cdc.gov/NPAO_DT/LocationSummary.aspx?state=New%20York

[2] http://www.thecurriculumofcuisine.org/what.html

[3] http://www.gaiaeducation.org/index.php/en/

[4] http://gen.ecovillage.org/en/article/dimensions-sustainability-0

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