On a fall evening in Seattle's Delridge neighborhood, the unmistakable smell of home cooking wafted from the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center kitchen. Not even the unusually heavy rainstorm that drenched the streets had kept 17 youth from meeting at the usual Wednesday time.
The young people are part of the Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team (F.E.E.S.T.) – a program that began in 2006 as part of the King County Food and Fitness Initiative, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Community grantee.
In the kitchen, youth ages 12-to-24 busily prepared a seven-course meal that included roasted root vegetables, lentils with chilies, sautéed cabbage, butternut squash and a green salad with blood oranges and pomegranates, all made from experimenting with different spices and ingredients. Even without recipes, the cooks were comfortable and confident, with one explaining, "Whatever you make, it's an expression of you so it can't be wrong."
At first, the program offered a simple opportunity to city youth to prepare community dinners together. The youth-led meals introduced healthy, fresh food preparation to participants, some of whom resided in neighborhoods without a single grocery store.
According to Cristina Orbe, F.E.E.S.T. program manager, "It was an immense opportunity to educate youth in bigger ways around food systems, not just on a community level but within themselves and their smaller communities, and get them really conscious about the decisions they're making and of the opportunities there are to make an impact."
In just a few short years, F.E.E.S.T .has grown to include a community garden, an annual youth summit, an internship program for those interested in journalism, gardening, event planning and cooking, and even the construction of a chicken coop. One past participant, whose interest in cooking was piqued by F.E.E.S.T., is now a student at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
F.E.E.S.T youth come from all across the city and the program reflects that diversity. Not only are they racially and ethnically diverse, their reasons for participating are just as varied. Some are referred by school counselors or partner agencies, others are drawn by an interest in F.E.E.S.T.'s leadership development opportunities and still others have heard about the program from friends or trusted adults.
F.E.E.S.T.'s innovative approach to youth engagement also caught the attention of other collaboratives throughout the county, with Orbe and others playing host to those wishing to model their programs after F.E.E.S.T's success.
The word "empowerment" in F.E.E.S.T.'s name isn't accidental. In addition to gaining confidence with healthy food and food choices, participants are encouraged to take charge of what's important to them and get involved in their communities.
A recent visit from Seattle's Mayor Mike McGinn gave participants the opportunity to demonstrate their interest in political engagement. Orbe shares that when the mayor visited "F.E.E.S.T. youth asked him to attend our youth summit. When the mayor said, 'I'll check my schedule,' a young woman replied, 'Look. You're the mayor. You control your schedule. I need to know that you're dedicated enough to the issues in my community that you're going to show up.'"
Orbe notes that the evolution of F.E.E.S.T. participants into empowered and confident youth is not unusual. She states, "There are so many youth that come through that are so shy at first. To see a youth come in and harness his or her power is just an amazing thing to witness."