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Food Sovereignty, Youth Empowerment & Farm to School

NFSN Staff Friday, November 22, 2019

Keir Johnson-Reyes, Megan Forcia, Shelbi Fitzpatrick and Alena Paisano at the NFSN Annual Meeting. 
This blog is dedicated to celebrating November as Native American Heritage Month. In April 2019, at National Farm to School Network’s Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL, individuals from various tribal nations around the country participated in a panel discussion. The conversation below highlights thoughts shared on farm to school in Native communities, food sovereignty, and youth leadership. Panel participants representing NFSN's 2019 National Partner of the Year, Intertribal Agriculture Council, include Keir Johnson-Reyes, Shelbi Fitzpatrick, and Megan Forcia. The panel was moderated by Alena Paisano, NFSN Program Manager. A video of the full session is available here

Alena: There is a robust movement for food sovereignty occurring in this nation in all communities - native, rural, and urban alike. The connection between food sovereignty and farm to school ties directly to youth. Empowered youth are helping lead the way in transforming our food systems back to the original, healthy food systems they were. Can you define in your own language what food sovereignty means to you?

Shelbi: The textbook definition states, “the right of peoples to culturally appropriate in healthy foods and the ability to create their own kinds of food systems.” For me, I think you need to dive in deeper into yourself and as a people to understand what food sovereignty means. It's a matter of looking at our environment and land in an objective versus subjective kind of way. Society looks at land and the environment in a subjective way and looks at what we can take without understanding relationships. To me, food sovereignty means strengthening those relationships between humans and nonhumans (the environment), which would better enhance our relationship to our food.

Megan: To me, food sovereignty is everything. It is from the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, our relationships, and our identities as who we are. By being able to witness the amazing work happening around food sovereignty, particularly that our youth are doing, I am able to catch my breath and re-find a center in the midsts of all the environmental, water, and climate crises. In the area of food sovereignty, we need to start looking at things in terms of a bigger picture and larger scope. 

Alena: How do you see farm to school, large or small-scale, as a strategy for advancing food sovereignty in Native communities?

Keir: This is about planting seeds. Working with our young people is working with our communities. Allyship and stepping into uncomfortable situations to explore what you can bring to the table in an effort to co-develop solutions is critical in the process. It is important to understand that working with Native youth in our communities is sacred because they are the future of our people. We view things in different ways, so it is important to develop common languages in order to be able to work together innovatively as we each step forward in this space. That is one of the reasons I am so grateful for the partnership here.  

Shelbi: Food sovereignty is a political action for indigenous peoples. For an organization like NFSN to recognize the sovereignty of indigenous people is huge, especially the political credibility and support that accompanies it. It is amazing in itself that we have a seat at this table and taking part in collaborative actions and sharing common languages is a way to advance in the area of food sovereignty. One example that stuck out to me was partnering schools with elders in the community to work with the garden. Those are two groups that rely on each other for knowledge sharing and bringing each other life in terms of community building. It is something that seems realistic in my home community. 

Megan: It is important to give power back to communities in a way that enables them to have a voice in their own food systems. It is important to understand that we are talking about the type of sovereignty that is nation to nation and government to government. From my understanding, a lot of your farm to school work is heavily reliant upon policy and making sure that support for the work that is laid out within said policy. It is important to remember that for a long time, Native voices have been absent from the conversations surrounding the policies being made. Nationally, in the realms of agriculture, like with the Native Farm Bill Coalition, there has been success in creating a unified voice for Indian Country in that space. There is a need for voices to be heard on the state and local level. Opportunities to speak out are often missed due to a lack of understanding towards the meaning of sovereignty. I hope that the things we are discussing right now opens your eyes in a way that helps you to return home and have those conversations with your community in an effort to advance food sovereignty. 

Alena: In working with IAC, I have seen the fully funded and supported investment they are making in youth programming and the importance that is being placed on their youth. In my culture and traditions, we acknowledge that everything lies within our youth. They have the potential to carry on all the work we have done and all the sacrifices that our ancestors made so that we are able to sit here today. Why is youth leadership important in the farm to school/food sovereignty movement?

Keir: The average age of farmers and ranchers continues to increase from the current 59 years old. Engaging with youth in communities and making sure youth voices are present in the decisions being made about them are important. It is critical to support the localization of responses to issues that are present. Local, traditional food that ties us to our ancestors and to who we are is about ingesting healing. Food is the connection point for all the things that come together and promote wellness within communities. Engaging with youth in communities is not something that should be an afterthought. It is should be at the forefront of everything that we do. IAC has provided a modeling of what youth leadership can look like, and my hope is that others will take charge.

Shelbi: Allowing youth to be involved in these conversations at an earlier age inspires them to get involved earlier. Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance youth are so involved and invested in the conversations surrounding food sovereignty. When the time comes, we are prepared to step into leadership roles and start putting into action all the things we have been talking about. There is a lot to be said about the traditional knowledge of agricultural issues that is passed down from elders to youth. While it is important to go forward, you must also look back and reflect to see what has changed.

Megan: Instilling a sense of hope and empowerment in youth will help them cope with all of the negative feelings and stress surrounding the issues they are faced with, such as climate change. The health of our youth, both mentally and physically, directly translates into the health of our nation. Empowering youth with realistic support, not theoretical talk, gives them a sense of hope that will carry them through all of the difficulties that our communities are facing. We need to look at youth empowerment as the rebuilding of our nations with them as as the foundation of a stronger, healthier future. 

Alena: Something I learned while attending a conference is that just when you feel you have mastered something, it is then time to take that knowledge and teach it to someone else. These youth that are involved are ready to take that on - we just have to give them a platform to do so. 

This conversation was transcribed by Mackenize Martinez, Partnership Communications Intern. 

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