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Recap: The Real Food Challenge’s 3rd Annual Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit

Group shot of the 2011 SYFAS Southeast participants (courtesy of the Real Food Challenge's facebook page)

Nearly a month ago, around 175 students from universities in the Southeast gathered at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) campus to talk about food for the third annual Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit (SYFAS). Students from Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Virgina, Tennessee and Florida spent the weekend learning about topics ranging from campaigns for farm worker justice to the nitty-gritty on how to start a campus food co-op.

Since I’m living in Guatemala, I wasn’t able to attend the conference in person, but thanks to Melissa Tinling (this year’s Southeast regional co-coordinator) I was able to hear from the other 2011 SYFAS regional conference coordinators their perspective of how the conference went.

If you take a second to look at the conference schedule, the varying range of topics revolving around food becomes evident–from a talk given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about strategies to counteract the obesity epidemic to a workshop led by CoFed (a training program and research institute that enables students to create ethically-sourced, community-run cafes on college campuses) on “Democratizing the Campus Food System.” According to co-Southeast regional coordinator Alicia, “…a main shared goal (among the SYFAS coordinators) was ultimately to provide new insight and tangible skills that attendees could learn and bring back with them.”

From what I’ve heard from the conference coordinators, this is exactly what was accomplished. According to Rachel, a coordinator from the host-campus of UGA, it was extremely helpful to listen and learn from the stories of other college campuses working to bring fairly, locally, and organically sourced food to their dining halls. For Rachel, the conference “allowed UGA students…to connect with each other in an unprecedented way.” She goes on to say that thanks to the ideas and experiences shared at the conference, UGA is planning to establish their own organization, similar to UNC’s FLO Foods, which primarily is an advocate for more sustainable food purchasing in UNC’s dining halls. As UGA already has a student-run campus garden, and Athens, GA, has a vibrant and growing small farming community, this could create an optimal environment for creating fairly, locally, and organically sourced food to UGA’s campus.

In addition to fueling the establishment of a FLO Foods-type student group at UGA, the conference also yielded interest in starting student co-ops (at UNC-CH), as well as interest with students from Alabama to pilot the Real Food Calculator, which is the RFC’s tool to track institutional food purchasing.

Many attendees also appreciated what the keynote speaker, Nikki Henderson, had to say about working to improve access to healthy food on a community level. As director of The People’s Grocery in West Oakland, CA, Henderson’s advice is something that’s pertinent to any kind of activist–as one coordinator interpreted, not to “waltz into a community and attempt to impose one of our self-declared great ideas on them.” For a food activist, this means learning from the community members, as well as giving them a chance to say in what capacity (if any) they’d like help in improving their quality of life.

If you’re interested in how to become involved with the Real Food Challenge, Melissa (as well as the other RFC coordinators) recommends “gather[ing] some friends together at your university to discuss your common interests in food. Where are the needs or gaps in your community?  Food is the hub of a vast and interdisciplinary society–whatever you are interested in, from local food security to entrepreneurship to agricultural engineering–do something!  Our most valuable resource is each other- make connections. Go to for ideas, tools, and resources.”


Sidenote on farmworker justice: Living in Guatemala, and talking with my co-workers on the farm, I’ve heard repeatedly the view that if they had enough money to migrate to the United States, they would. Many of them have a few friends or family members living in the States, and are enticed by the amount of money they can make per day in the States as compared to in Guatemala (at the farm, they’re making around $10/day). What I haven’t heard though, is talk  about the realities of the sub-standard living conditions, separated families, regular exposure to toxic pesticides and fertilizers without protection, lack of access to basic human rights that they would most likely face upon migration to the U.S.–all of the issues that campaigns for farmworker justice attempt to address. I remember learning about the Bracero program in my last semester of college, and although not perfect, it made migrant laborers legal (about 2 million came to the U.S. on contracts) and thus the Mexican government had somewhat of a say in how their citizens were treated while working in the U.S. Jumping forward to today’s times, I can’t see very much progress with respect to how migrant laborers are treated in the U.S.


Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.

Posted on: March 28, 2011, 9:00 am Category: The "After" Life of an Environmental Studies Student, The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , , ,

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