Foodwise Teens Nurture Leadership and Community During the Pandemic

Anisha Rathod, CUESA Staff
January 28, 2021

For many high school students, adapting to distance learning has brought new challenges, such as isolation, Zoom fatigue, and staying motivated, on top of other stressors during the pandemic.

“I’m a very face-to-face person,” says tenth-grader Azucena Hernandez, known as “Azu” to her friends. “Emailing teachers has been terrible. I’m very good at speaking to people. That’s my strong point. I haven’t been able to do that, and that’s been really hard.”

But participating CUESA’s Foodwise Teens, an after-school cooking, gardening, and job skills program, has helped Azu continue to nourish that outgoing part of herself, even if much of the learning is online. “I felt more comfortable having my camera on during Foodwise Teens, just because it wasn’t in school. But in having my camera on [for Foodwise Teens], I could pay attention a lot more, which is really great.” 

Bringing Foodwise Teens into the Home 

Now in its third year, Foodwise Teens continues to support youth in learning about food justice and developing life and leadership skills in a new format. Before the pandemic, students met with CUESA educators at local high schools to care for their school garden, harvest fruits and vegetables, and create value-added products, which they would later sell at CUESA’s farmers markets. COVID-19 changed all of that last March when schools closed to in-person learning. 

Over the spring and summer, CUESA worked to adapt the program to ensure that students would still be able to have this valuable experience during the pandemic. Last fall, CUESA ran its first distance semester of Foodwise Teens with 32 students from three SFUSD high schools. The cohort received gardening and cooking kits at their residences and were encouraged to invite siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, or anyone they are living with to join in hands-on activities. 

Each week, teens gathered over Zoom with students from other schools and grades and shared what they learned while they were away from their screens. Though distance learning has not been without its challenges, the new format has provided valuable opportunities for students to connect with their families, community, and each other, even while sheltering-in-place.

One of the students’ favorite activities was making rainbow spring rolls with fresh fruits and vegetables from CUESA’s farmers, which allowed them to practice different cutting techniques. “I liked eating my hard work,” says Ellie Chen, a twelfth-grade student at Academy SF @ McAteer. “It was also an opportunity for me and my mom to bond over making a food that came from our culture.”

Another favorite activity was growing radish and lettuce plants from seed in a container garden at home. Similar to Ellie’s experience, this activity brought Azu closer to her family, while she practiced new skills. 

“When we did the grow box, mine didn’t end too well,” she admits. “I’ve always liked plants. I’ve just always been really bad and accidentally kill them.” So she asked for help from her dad and sister, who would frequently garden without Azu. “Since we took care of my grow box together, they were like, ‘Oh, Azu can garden too!’ Now I get included.”

Nurturing Human Connection at the Farmers Market

Developing job skills is a key pillar of Foodwise Teens, so the new program format offers teens the option to work outside and socially distanced at CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Twenty-two of the students opted in to this experience, and for many, it was their first time visiting a farmers market and getting paid for their work.

“I can’t stress this enough that the farmers market was so amazing,” Azu recalls. “I learned something, and I felt like a bright new pupil. I got a good feeling [at the farmers market].” Azu pauses to collect her thoughts. “I don’t know how to explain, but I get this feeling a lot when I’m eating really healthy, just feeling clean and positive, like good things are gonna happen.”

First, students toured the market to explore what’s in season and meet sellers to learn about running food businesses. To practice customer service, food safety, and teamwork, they then worked with CUESA’s operations team to support the handwashing station for market visitors, produce packing for CUESA’s Feed Hospitality and Farmers Market Boxes, and the Veggie Valet booth.

For Azu, this experience was more than just a job: “It made me feel useful. I got thank-yous while I was sitting there at the handwashing station. I liked being behind [the counter] and feeling important because I got to talk to people.” 

Growing as Community Leaders

A core component of Foodwise Teens encourages students to see themselves as community leaders and asks them to dig deep into issues of food injustice in their communities and explore creative and tangible solutions. Students discussed strategies like distributing leftover food to hungry people, reducing waste on the streets on their block, and building neighborhood gardens. At the end of the program, nearly two-thirds of the students reported that they had better tools to tackle problems in the food system.

Ellie, a natural leader, is excited to bring these ideas to reality. “I feel like this program educated me a lot about how to specifically help my community be ‘foodwise.’ I’ve learned that there are plenty of options for low-income families to have access to fresh and nutritious foods, but there’s just nobody to tell us.” 

Azu has also continued growing skills she learned in Foodwise Teens, using them to make an impact in her neighborhood. “I’ve been cooking meals every Monday with my sister, which has been really cool. We made tamales with purple masa. We passed them out to seniors. We gave them to my neighbors, who just got over COVID.”

Upon completing the semester program, students receive a stipend of $550. These stipends, now more than ever, support students in taking on more responsibilities as they enter adulthood. “The most challenging thing about the pandemic is money because my parents work at restaurants, which were closed, and weren’t able to work for a while,” one student shared. “Participating in Foodwise could relieve my parents’ stress on bills.”

Planting Seeds of Transformation

This spring, CUESA will be hosting 35 more students in another distance-learning semester of Foodwise Teens, providing an urgently needed space to build community, knowledge, and skills in an isolating time. Marco, an eleventh-grader from Mission High School, says this “is especially important right now because COVID restricts human interaction, but Foodwise Teens incorporates a certain sense of human interaction that we have been lacking.” 

Through Foodwise Teens, students reveal that we are more resilient not as individuals, but rather as a community. Only by working together will we come out of the pandemic stronger.

As Ariana, a twelfth-grader from Mission High School, puts it, Foodwise Teens “is important because you get to have a knowledgeable relationship with what you eat. It’s also not common for teens to be aware of their communities’ food issues. It’s important to learn these things because we can pass that knowledge on to those who don’t know.”

Help CUESA grow Foodwise Teens and future food leaders with a gift to CUESA today.

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