“Every day is Thanksgiving with FEEST,” says Katt Hudson, a senior at Evergreen High School in Seattle. FEEST (Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team, a name cooked up by students themselves) is a youth-driven program that combines weekly after-school meals with education on food systems, community engagement and personal growth. Five years since it began, FEEST operates from two high schools in Seattle, with plans underway to expand to other cities.
As a senior FEEST intern, Katt trains new interns and works on outreach projects. She has joined fellow FEEST students to address the youth advisory council to the state legislature on food access issues; she has created posters to promote FEEST; and with fellow interns, she co-wrote and co-starred in Salad Warz, a humorous short film with an important message encouraging students to take advantage of salad bars at school lunches.
A simple but powerful model
Two key components make up the FEEST model: a shared meal, led by youth themselves, and youth engagement activities, from inviting community leaders to a meal, to visiting a local farm to projects that help students better understand the role good food plays in shaping their bodies, their lives and their communities. Both aspects of FEEST are essential. “One without the other doesn’t make sense,” says Roberto Ascalon, FEEST’s food program director.
The students don’t use recipes but take the food that’s at hand and figure out what to do with it. When students take ownership of the cooking process, Ascalon explains, then they’re invested in the food they eat. It’s a radical reframing of the relationship students have with food. “FEEST gives kids a chance to shape their own food destiny,” says Ascalon. “For these kids, even trying something new can be revolutionary.”
Expanding FEEST by adapting to new places
In 2012, a core FEEST team traveled to New Orleans to lead several workshops during the annual “Regrowing Community” convening hosted by the Renaissance Project. The meals reflected the rich food traditions of New Orleans – one involved 16 pounds of okra, an amount not likely to be seen at a Seattle dinner – but the experience proved the FEEST model to be highly adaptable.
FEEST is now in the process of visiting each of the six WKKF-funded Food & Fitness collaboratives in an effort to extend its program to new locations. In Northeast Iowa, FEEST programs have launched at four schools through a partnership with local 4-H youth groups. Following a visit from the Seattle FEEST team, three Detroit youth organizations have expressed interest in developing FEEST programs. And in Boston, the Boston Collaborative for Food & Fitness is looking to adapt the FEEST model for community dinners. “We’re sharing a method of engagement, says FEEST Executive Director Cristina Orbé. “What you do in your city might not look like what we do in ours, but you can take elements of the FEEST model and make it your own.”
The heart of FEEST is still a shared meal
On a Tuesday last October, FEEST held its first meal of the 2013 fall semester at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle. Ascalon and co-leader Meng Yu facilitated, but the evening belonged to the two dozen students who participated. For a few quiet moments, an intern named Zamzam went over the house rules, Roberto demonstrated proper knife handling techniques, and an intern led students through impromptu menu planning. Then it was controlled chaos to hip hop at full volume, the Black Eyed Peas singing “Come Now Baby,” as students in small teams juiced fruit, stir-fried vegetables, roasted potatoes and cooked noodles.
Ascalon moved deftly from team to team, offering gentle guidance: “Clean up as you go.” “Make sure your dishes are beautiful!” “Salad team, do you have a dressing yet?” By six o’clock, the students were seated around a long table. Each shared one thing to be thankful for: friends, the meal before them, and the people who grew the food. And then they ate with great gusto – stir-fried vegetables, rice dishes, tofu dishes, green salads, fruit salads. They talked, they laughed, they smiled a lot. Except occasionally to snap a picture, no one pulled out a cell phone.
Get to know FEEST through the eyes of its young participants on the FEEST blog. For more, read about FEEST in a post from food activist Anna Lappe in Huffington Post or watch a video about FEEST at Food MythBusters.