Meet the Food World's Young Movers and Shakers

May 6, 2011

Like many social movements, the so-called “good food movement” relies heavily on young people for their vision, energy, and idealism. And yet, when Naomi Starkman, one of the organizers behind the Kitchen Table Talks series, invited six young leaders to speak at a panel called Next Gen Food Activists, she pinpointed just what sets them apart.

“This group is interested in rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty,” said Starkman from a podium at the UC Berkeley Journalism School, which co-hosted the panel. “They’re also one of the most technologically connected generations, using social tools and the internet to organize.”

Indeed, as the discussion illuminated, the young men and women present have succeeded in ways that have seamlessly blended the online and offline worlds. They also represented multiple lenses on the edible world: from food justice to green business, to the “delicious revolution.”

sites/default/files/haleh.jpgThe audience heard from Haleh Zandi, co-founder of Planting Justice, an organization that combines permaculture landscaping, sustainable food education, and community organizing. (For every three edible gardens Planting Justice builds for paying clients, they provide one for a low-income household.) Zandi came to food through the anti-war movement. And, after studying the industrial food system, with its heavy dependence on fossil fuels and the abundance of cheap, heavily processed food, she says she drew a connection between the two. “I started to see it as a slow and violent warfare on our bodies,” she said.

In an effort to create genuinely “green” jobs, Zandi and her co-founder employ youth of color, including formerly incarcerated youth, and pay them a living wage (from $17-$25 an hour). “Most discourse around green jobs focuses on … solar panels and such,” she told the audience. “But we’re trying to demonstrate that green jobs can be created with very little capital input.”

sites/default/files/james_berk.jpgPanelist James Berk is also working to make significant change in the Oakland food landscape. The owner-worker at Mandela Foods Cooperative was recruited right out of high school to help run an independent, full-service grocery store in West Oakland. Berk spoke eloquently about his motivation and the state of food in his community.

“Regardless of what part of Oakland I’ve lived in,” said Berk, “there was never a grocery store within walking distance.” He spoke of eating mainly frozen HungryMan dinners and Hot Pockets, saying, “although I didn’t really understand high fructose corn syrup, I knew that when I ate those things they made me feel bad.” Now Berk is working to get fresh produce into corner stores in West Oakland – an idea he says he often has to defend. “People in these communities are buying [produce] – that’s something we’ve been questioned about a lot. Although some of them could use some education…we all want something better than what we have.”

sites/default/files/hai_vo_headshot.jpgHai Vo, a former organizer with the campus-based Real Food Challenge*, and a recent college graduate, spoke of his new project, Live Real. With Live Real, Vo hopes to engage in organizing off college campuses precisely so he can give youth like James, who are “highly impacted by the food system,” more of a platform in the movement.

“We want to make sure the food movement is inclusive,” says Vo, who described Live Real as an “on- and off-line platform that builds community.” He is also involved in a search for eight to ten Real Food fellows for the coming year.

sites/default/files/nikalex.jpgNikhil Arora was by far the most business-minded of the group, but that’s not to say he doesn’t also have an eye toward transforming the food system. The Hass School of Business graduate talked about the serendipitous crossroads he and classmate Alejandro Velez found themselves at two weeks before graduation. The two were considering finding jobs as consultants or going into investment banking, says Arora, when they were told about how easy it is to grow oyster mushrooms in used coffee grounds. Arora and Velez were excited by the idea of turning a waste product into food, and began experimenting with growing the mushrooms in buckets in a tiny student apartment.

Within months of leaving business school, the two founded a company called Back to the Roots and, thanks to a national partnership with Whole Foods, began selling mushroom kits. The idea, Arora says, is to get people to think differently about growing their own food (additional, simple food production kits are forthcoming), and therefore appreciate it more. “We’re in Whole Foods, but that’s not the only place want to be,” says Arora, who hopes to get the message behind their product out to a less self-selecting audience. “We’re aiming for Toys R Us by Christmas.”  

sites/default/files/samin.jpgSamin Nosrat, the organizer of Oakland’s Pop-Up General Store, writer, cooking instructor, and a former chef at Chez Panisse and Eccolo, talked about pushing the “delicious revolution” in new directions. To Nosrat, helping people understand the work and the resources that go into making real food is equally as important as — if not always in harmony with — providing more access to healthy food.

Nosrat called herself an “accidental activist,” saying, “I’m not necessarily a political person. I know how to create community around food, to give people pleasure and teach them how to do that for their families.”  But Nosrat’s actions may belie her words. She went on to describe the success behind her recent Bakesale for Japan, which — thanks largely to online organizing via Facebook and Twitter — raised over $130,000 from 42 locations around the country. At each location, she made it a point to offer affordable options so that “no matter how much money you had, you could go and spend a dollar and feel like you were a part of something big.”

“It’s really easy to send a text message to Red Cross,” she added. “But what’s meaningful is to be able to put your hands on something and be with other people.” On a note that might just explain her generation’s fascination with food, Nosrat said: “It’s something that will never be digitized. At some point you have to get off the computer and eat, and at some point you’re going to have to interact with somebody to get that food.”  

* The Real Food Challenge has chapters on campuses around the nation and has spurred other initiatives, such as the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFed), a project which seeks to build a web of student food cooperatives. CoFed founder Yonatan Landau was also on the panel [read a recent e-letter about the CoFed].