Everything I believe about food, I learned from a five-year-old. It was her lesson, twenty years ago, that gave birth to our food justice campaigns.
In the early days of Peace4Kids, we were only a garden -- the 99th Street Elementary School Peace Garden. I was in my early 20s and a very strict vegan. This caused friction with many of our youth’s parents and caregivers because at all of our program activities, we allowed only plant-based foods to be served. When the children questioned this, I would explain about the food ecosystems and the impact meat has on our health, as well as the environment. As a result, they began requesting plant-based diets at home. This led to nightly calls from angry caregivers during dinner time. The complaint was always the same, “You made these kids not want meat?! Then you need to come over here and feed them.”
I was always disturbed by these conversations. Why wouldn’t these caregivers want to improve their health and that of the youth in foster care they served? What was so extreme about having more vegetables at the dinner table?
These conversations were taking a toll; the Peace Garden was no longer a place of peace for me. I often found myself convincing the youth in the program that it was okay to eat the food the caregivers served them, even though I didn’t believe it. It went against my values. If keeping the peace at foster homes meant lying to our youth, I feared I wouldn’t be able to continue.
I always arrived early to open the gate for the Peace Garden, to give myself plenty of time to set-up and meditate on the day’s activities. On one particular Saturday, a caregiver arrived shortly after I did. She explained that she had a family crisis and asked if I could take her child early for the program. Although I was not mentally prepared for this, I decided to help. In part, I recognized how difficult it was for foster parents to get an approved babysitter in these critical situations. Perhaps, I also hoped to earn some equity and find an ally in our caregiver community after all the attacks I had endured.
Regina bolted out of the back seat and was anxious to help. At five-years-old, she had a lot of questions. Her curiosity kept her stuck to my hip, which created a problem because I had a ton of work to do. The task of watching Regina and preparing for the day made me anxious. I needed to find a safe distraction that would give me enough space to take care of my other responsibilities.
Then I saw it. The first strawberry of the season. I picked it up and gave it to Regina. She was amazed by it’s bright red color and smell. We talked about how lucky she was to get the first strawberry of the harvest. I told her, she could rinse off the strawberry and then look for other ripe strawberries that she could share when the other kids got there. She was excited about her assignment and ran off to the sink to wash off her strawberry. I continued setting up for the day.
For the next twenty minutes, Regina was surprisingly quiet and engaged looking for ripe strawberries. I was able to get my remaining tasks done and then came over to check on her. What I saw, made my blood boil. There, in the dirt, was the half-eaten strawberry that I had found for her earlier.
“Regina! You didn’t like the strawberry?” I asked with a firm tone. Her eyes looked at me with puzzlement. “Yes, I really liked it!” she said. “Then why would you throw it away in the dirt?”
Her answer rocked me to my core and brought tears to my eyes.
“Mr. Zaid, I wasn’t throwing it away. There were only green strawberries in the garden, so I was planting this red one so there could be more of them for the other kids when they got here today.”
Her compassion for the kids who weren’t there took me by surprise. You see, Regina originally came from a food insecure environment. She would often eat so much food at our program that she would throw up. We had to appoint a volunteer to her each Saturday to monitor her consumption of food. Yet here, she had self-regulated this behavior to make sure the rest of the kids got the same opportunity.
Suddenly I understood.
The foster parents weren’t angry at me for encouraging a plant-based diet. They were limited in their access to the foods they needed to make those types of choices. Our community, in South LA, is filled with fast food chains and corner liquor stores. There are grocery stores too, but the quality of the produce is very different than the health food stores where I shop.
That day, I committed to improving access to healthy produce within our community. I began to dive deep into understanding the food culture impacting the youth. How did they access food? What foods did they like? Were they willing to change their diets?
In diving deeper, I learned that South LA is considered a "food desert." Grocery stores, like many other businesses, study the demographics of an area before deciding where to open a store. Unfortunately, impoverished areas in America don’t meet the intended demographic criteria for grocery stores to invest in building a location there. As a result, residents of these neglected neighborhoods only have access to small community stores that typically specialize in selling alcohol and junk food.
As a result, the communities, like South Los Angeles, have some of the highest rates of obesity and heart disease in the country.
Regina had a strong influence on our Leadership Development Programming as well. One social experiment in particular always resonates deeply with our teens. We set up two covered pop-up tents across from each other. In one, we leave an assortment of donuts with a table and plastic chairs. In the other, we provide a spread of fruits, nuts, hummus and pita, fresh juices and classical music playing with comfortable seating. Teens are randomly selected to go into either tent. They are given 15 minutes to enjoy their experience. The donut tent always finishes first with time to spare. The fruits and nuts tent always asks for more time. Surprisingly, the donut tent always believes they have the best spread and saves some donuts for the other tent, much like Regina. When they see what the fruit and nuts tent has they are visibly upset at how unfair they were treated and how no one saved them any food. We then travel to different grocery stores and restaurants in Los Angeles so that can see that disparity on a larger scale. This work became the foundational discovery that lead to the creation of our Mobile Village Kitchen.
20 years ago in the garden, Regina inspired me to fight for food equity. Today, we grow 50% of the produce used to feed youth, staff and volunteers every week and the leftover produce is donated to caregivers, along with ideas about how to infuse them into delicious meals. Our seed to plate curriculum is thriving and our food justice work has been localized; feeding and teaching the P4K community direct from our Mobile Village Kitchen.
I am honored to witness the next generation of food conscious innovators pushing for food equity. Many youth in our LEAD Program (18-24 yr olds) are taking steps to improve their lives through nutrition. Next week, we're excited to share about a young man in our community who is continuing to cement the legacy that Regina inspired 20 years ago.
As our youth build a better relationship with food, and understand the impact their diet has on their health and wellbeing, the question often pops up "but who will teach the rest of the community?" ...well, if Regina has taught us anything, it's that our youth have the answers!!
Thank you to those that have joined our Heroes Circle as monthly recurring donors. These funds directly support our Transitional Age Youth as they age out of foster care and begin shaping their future and the future of the community!
As we celebrate our 20 Year Anniversary, we encourage you to take a lesson from our youth and embrace the traumas that have shaped your life. To #SeeTheHero and to affirm your greatness.
Step into our Heroes Circle by clicking the button below and making a monthly donation to help build a sustainable future for youth transitioning out of foster care. 100% of your donation funds strength based, youth focused programming in South LA - honoring each youth’s unique needs, experiences, abilities and legacy. In return, you'll:
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- #SeeTheHero in our youth, because the truth is… that’s who they are.