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Boy peeking from behind plants in a hydroponics lab

Food Justice Heroes: Youth Leaders Planting the Seeds of Justice and Healing

By Jeannie Russell

Students in Queens NYC School District 30 who participated in HEART’s Compassionate Communities Food Justice for All competition became Food Justice Heroes and teachers themselves: showing us how to use the principles and practices of the growing Food Justice movement to build more equitable, resilient, and thriving neighborhoods.

Some basic principles guide Food Justice activists in their work to advance a truly humane and sustainable food system. HEART’s Compassionate Communities Food Justice For All program is designed to give schools the tools they need to bring these principles to life and activate our youth as Food Justice Heroes: leaders in transforming our communities and our global food systems for the benefit of all.

Food Justice means directly supporting those most in need — not only to provide for vulnerable individuals, but also to build equity in communities with long-standing barriers to accessing affordable, culturally-affirming, and healthy foods.

Schools in Queens District 30 are located in what were some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods during the pandemic, and the extent of food insecurity within that community skyrocketed during this time. The challenges for the elderly, families with young children, and other vulnerable individuals in this part of Queens have actually increased in the current year, as inflation and cuts to government-funded resources push more and more community members into conditions of chronic food insecurity.

Here are a few examples of the ways that some of our Compassionate Communities 2022 participants wove food justice principles into their school culture and deepened their connections to the communities they belong to.

  • Students and staff at PS 151Q supported their neighbors challenged by food insecurity by distributing healthy food boxes to families within the school community in need, and by offering in-school nutrition and cooking classes for students and their guardians.
  • PS 151Q students also partnered with a mutual aid group that supplies a community fridge across the street from the school to help that group keep fresh and healthy food available for free to all who need it.
  • The whole school got involved at PS 234Q on Harvest Day, when the produce grown in the hydroponics lab was picked, cleaned, and distributed to families in need.
Kids distributing food with local nonprofit Brighter Bites
Woodside Community Fridge
Students celebrating in a classroom with fresh green produce on Harvest Day

The Food Justice movement is grounded in the right of community members to grow, sell, and distribute food in their local food system without outside control, a principle known as Food Sovereignty.

Schools all over the city have been enthusiastically embracing school gardening as a way of advancing Food Sovereignty in their communities. 

  • Students at PS 234Q learned how hydroponic growing systems can reduce the use of land and water for food production, allowing for a more diverse natural habitat and offering a sustainable food source for urban areas. They loved working in their school hydroponics lab!
  • Students at the Renaissance Charter School worked to enhance and expand their school garden as a learning environment and as a space for parents to collaborate with school staff and students on choosing foods they want to produce and distribute.
  • PS 151Q 3rd graders visited a local community garden, tasted fresh herbs, and learned how to reduce food waste and make healthy soil at the same time!
Students and educators demonstrating and tending to a school garden
Students also learned about composting and composting bins

Food Justice activists work to make healthy food available to all community members with no barriers to access: they define healthy food as fresh, nutritious, culturally affirming, and locally sourced with care for the land, workers, and animals that produce it.

  • Students and staff at PS 81Q created and shared recipes using fresh food grown in their school hydroponics lab that is nutritious and connected to food traditions of the diverse backgrounds of families in the school community.      
  • Students at PS 81Q also expanded a pollinator garden on the school site to support local wildlife critical to food production and increase the beauty and diversity of our urban habitat.
  • Students at PS 234Q learned about factory farming: the inhumane conditions in which the animals are kept, the exploitation of the workers, and the extensive environmental and climate harm that large-scale animal agriculture causes.
  • PS 151Q students extended their exploration of the impact of food insecurity to the wild and companion animals that we share our urban space with.
  • Students at PS 81Q learned about the overall impact of large-scale agriculture (both animal and crop) on global environmental conditions: massive rainforest deforestation to create space for cattle and animal feed; soil depletion through mono-cropping and over-use of chemical treatments; habitat destruction and critical species loss due to pervasive pesticide and herbicide use; freshwater pollution and ocean dead zones from fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, and animal waste; climate impacts from all of the above, dramatically increasing our risks for crop failures and global hunger from chaotic and extreme weather conditions; and loss of resilience in our natural habitats as we deplete and damage more and more of the natural world that sustains us all.

The principles and practices of the Food Justice movement aim to directly challenge the underlying causes of food apartheid in our low-income areas and communities of color, and combat the pervasive exploitation of and devastating harm to people, animals, and our natural world that result from the corporatized, industrial food systems that increasingly dominate global farming practices.

Transforming the way we produce and distribute our food to align with these principles is critical to the future of the young Food Justice Heroes of Queens School District 30, as they will inherit either a world that is “bending towards justice” and healing a planet in crisis, or one that is increasingly divided into haves and have-nots, as the natural conditions that sustain all life on earth further degrade.

Many thanks to the teachers and staff of all of our Food Justice For All participant schools, and the support of the Queens Borough President’s Office, for their hard work in bringing our youth closer every day to the better world that we know is possible!

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