Community Voices: A Q&A with FEEST
What happens when a CSA farm box drop site is located at a cultural arts center? In the case of the Delridge neighborhood in West Seattle, the result is the Food Empowerment Education & Sustainability Team (FEEST) program. Started in 2008 as part of the King County Food and Fitness Initiative, which sought to address health inequalities in some of Seattle’s most diverse and lowest-income neighborhoods, FEEST has grown into a nonprofit organization of nine full-time employees supporting youth leaders in transforming systemic inequalities. As its motto states, participants are “Making Justice Irresistibly Delicious.”
Sound Consumer contributor Tara Austen Weaver recently talked with Cilia Jurdy, FEEST’s development and operations director:
Q: How did FEEST get started?
A: We started as a community dinner program out of Youngstown Cultural Arts Program (in Delridge)—a space for youth to come together to learn about cooking, but also to talk and learn about each other’s cultural background through food. From there we became our own nonprofit and started working in the schools. We would go to a school once a week, bring all the necessary ingredients, cook together with FEEST youth and anyone else who wanted to come, then enjoy a meal together. We would talk about anything on the youth’s minds, but really focusing around racial, social and health equity—where we are at right now, and where we want to go. The communities we’re working with are predominately low-income, Black, Brown, and Indigenous. We started in two schools and are now in five.
The dinners were a way to get youth interested in our programming—this joyful community space of cooking together and learning about one another’s cultures and backgrounds and family recipes. Then we also had what we call our campaign team. We were filling a need by providing fresh, free, culturally relevant food for our youth, but how do we change the systems so they have access to that all the time, specifically in the school districts?
Q: Your program has really evolved over the past 14 years. How has it changed?
A: We did a pretty large community survey with focus groups and discussions to identify the issues that were important. The areas we’re working in have pretty big food apartheid—and we use the term food apartheid rather than food deserts, because food deserts makes it seem like it’s naturally occurring, when there have been very purposeful policies and systems put in place to make it so.
From these surveys we ran a few test programs. One was our Snack Box Program. We wanted to see, if we brought fresh, healthy snacks to youth and handed them out at the beginning of 6th period, when everyone’s energy is waning a little bit, does their academic performance improve? And we found out that yes: fresh, healthy food really does increase energy and participation. From this research we really honed in on our goals to make sure that both Highline and Seattle school districts have fresh, free, culturally relevant food available for their students.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face in this work?
A: The folks we are working with only have so much power in these decisions, and these demands are very closely tied to budgets. In order to implement change, there would have to be a pretty big overhaul on where the money is allocated. System changes are tough to make.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
A: In the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was scrambling to figure out what the needs were and how to meet them. We cancelled our dinner program entirely, but there was still a need for food. So, for the first year and a half, the youth at our schools could apply for grocery assistance and we would do the shopping for them and drop food off. Later, when it was safer for people to go out, we switched to giving out gift cards so the families could shop for what they want.
Beyond the huge need for food in our communities, there was the murder of George Floyd—and we were seeing how that impacted our youth and their families. So, in summer of 2020, we joined with WA-BLOC (Washington Building Leaders of Change) and a student Black Lives Matter group out of Chief Sealth International High School, to petition for Seattle Public Schools to terminate their contract with (the) Seattle Police Department. From what we were hearing from our youth, those resource officers did not make them feel safe and weren’t offering any of the resources they actually need. We petitioned for the funding for the officers to be redistributed toward more mental health support and food. We got over 20,000 signatures, from all over Seattle, and presented it to the school board and they severed that tie. This was a huge win and a big turning point for us seeing the power we have when we all come together.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We’ve heard from our youth on a huge range of issues, but it boiled down to three top things: school food (still), needing more mental health resources, and how to implement restorative justice in schools so things felt less punitive and more growth based. So, we’ve broadened our mission. We are a youth-led organization, we will always go where the youth leads us—and now that includes taking a close look at mental health.
Our programs are virtual for now, but we really work to create a welcoming space. Our staff is very skilled at creating silly, fun spaces where everyone is encouraged to bring their whole selves and we work to meet our students where they are.
We’re seeing so many radical changes in the past few years—the impact of climate change, the impact of police violence on our communities, food scarcity. There are so many different large-scale, systemic challenges, we need youth leadership leading the way to a better world and a brighter future. And we need that today—there’s no time to wait.
Q: How can people who want to help support the work that FEEST is doing?
A: Financial support is always welcomed and encouraged, and we care less about dollar amount than we do about what the gift signifies. Each donation—whether it be five dollars or $500—is someone saying they support our youth and our work and that is someone joining our movement. We also need community support. Our youth leaders are smart and strong, but they cannot vote. Our monthly e-newsletter is on our website—it’s the best way to stay up to date and find out about action steps or particular needs.