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Across the U.S., students line up daily at school cafeterias where options of fresh and nutritious foods are sparse. For Fatma Zubeir, an 18-year-old senior at Highline Public School's Evergreen Campus in White Center, her daily lunchtime options come off the line in the form of pizza and chicken burgers with fries.
Depending on the day, Fatma and her fellow students see additions to the menu: Nacho Tuesday or Teriyaki Day for examples. But if you want, Fatma says, you can have a pizza or a chicken burger with fries every single day at school for lunch.
Off-campus choices for healthy foods are also limited. With nearly 80 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, school meals are the only option available to them. That's why improving school lunches is at the heart of ensuring young people have access to healthy food.
This is also the mission of the Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team, or FEEST, formed to tackle getting healthy, culturally appropriate food in schools. FEEST uses food as the catalyst to empower and develop young people as leaders and change agents, citing school lunch as emblematic of the national need to strengthen our cultural competency. "Our mission is to set the table for young people to do the systems change work necessary to seize opportunity and address the challenges they see in their lives and communities," explained Lisa Chen, executive director of FEEST.
FEEST holds a weekly dinner program at Evergreen Campus, as well as Chief Stealth High School in Delridge. "There's the systems change work that we do and the culture shift change that we do and a lot of that happens at our dinners," added Chen. Community dinners are the centerpiece of FEEST's engagement. FEEST dinners typically start right after school and run until 6 p.m., with most participants walking straight from their last class right into the dinner program.
The dinners take place in the high school home economics classroom. Students lead the majority of activities. "This is a youth led and youth driven program," Chen points out. "We have an agreement called 'pass the power, share the power' so we give a lot of trust to the young people we work with. They actually know so much more than they have been given the space to share."
These weekly dinners are an opportunity for young people to re-imagine their relationship with food. The dinners are mostly improvised.
Students are provided fresh vegetables, spices and other ingredients and they are asked to prepare a meal using their imagination only. "When young people go through a dinner program, some of them are seeing kale and carrots in the fresh form for the first time and it's completely changing their relationship to food," Chen noted.
But for some students, the FEEST program is not always an easy sell. "After my classes were done, the first thing I wanted to do was head home, "Fatma recalls. "What do I need from this place? I've already spent eight hours here." But one day her friends finally convinced Fatma to try it out and she was sold. "I came into the dinner and met the directors there and it was a cool space. People were blasting music and there was food everywhere and there was a lot of talk and laughter in the air -- people were having fun."
For Fatma, the dinners were an eye-opener. She came across various fresh vegetables that she had never hear of. And even if she had seen the vegetables used by her parents, Fatma never ate them herself.
Students who attend FEEST dinners are encouraged to join a leadership development cohort where they choose a community action project to improve health disparities and the built environment around them, making access to healthy foods more possible.
One of those campaigns developed by the youth led leadership team is improving school foods at the Evergreen Campus, which Fatma has helped lead over the last two years.
"The school district recognizes that students aren't eating -- or that they are throwing a lot of their food away," said Elizabeth Ortega, program director at FEEST. "It's very much on the nutrition instructor's mind that lunch is not working as well as it could and we need to get feedback from young people. FEEST is the way to do that.
To find out why young people were not eating their school food, FEEST conducted an extensive survey asking students how they felt lunches could be improved. "It was very clear from the survey that people wanted more veggie options because there are so many Muslim students that could only eat Halal meat," Chen pointed out. In addition, the survey found students were passing on, or throwing away, the existing vegetable options as they just couldn't compete taste-wise with more appealing, but less healthy foods.
These findings prompted the students to conduct a large taste test with 100 students giving feedback on recipes from FEEST youth. As a result, FEEST started a student advisory committee with the school's nutritionist, giving direct feedback and accountability to support successful change.
The survey and taste test have had a measurable impact on some of the food that is now being offered at Evergreen Campus. Healthy smoothies, a taste test favorite, can now be found as an option as students pass through the lunch line. Roasted asparagus and broccoli are also new to the rotation.
In the process, FEEST has found that going after something like school foods is not an easy undertaking. There are restrictions school districts have to consider at the federal level, restrictions at the state level and just sheer local budgetary realities.
FEEST recognizes that it is unrealistic to expect all students to want the healthy option. But when students taste the fresh version of food they typically eat, it can be such a huge shift for them. "We're in it for the long haul," Ortega exclaimed. "You can't have systems change and change all of the school's foods and make it all healthy without actually bringing the students along with us."
It's this long-term, systems change approach that teachers teens how to work through a complex system to make meaningful change. In doing so, FEEST develops young students to be savvy leaders that can spot problems and are emboldened to find solutions now and in the future.
Meanwhile, Fatma continues to work not only on the weekly dinners but she has taken a leadership role in FEEST meetings that focus on policy and advocacy work -- work that furthers systems change. "The battle with school lunches is never ending," Fatma said. "We're half way there you could say, but we have a long way to go. But as long as they see that we won't stop, I feel like change will happen."
Learn more about the Vibrant Communities strategy from the Seattle Foundation.