For the Love of Carrots and Community: Examining The Food Project's Youth Engagement in the Context of Dominant Discourses About Food and Health
Salad is good, and French fries are bad. People who eat salad are healthy, and those who eat French fries are not. These are some of the assumptions and dichotomies produced by dominant discourses around food and health in America. One of the main discourses is that individuals have complete responsibility for, and control over, their own health. This, by extension, often leads to the assumption that unhealthy people (or those whose bodies society deems “unhealthy”) are ignorant or disinterested in their own well-being. Although there is some acknowledgement of the role that systemic socio-economic factors can play in health, this often leads to the designation of certain areas as in need of interventions; programs that seek to improve such a community’s health generally focus on trying to change individual consumption habits. These programs are often run by outsiders and assume a lack of knowledge or access to fresh produce, something that is debated by academic literature. Additionally, many of these programs enter communities with preconceived ideas of what “healthy” is, which may not align with the eating traditions of individual households or the community as a whole. The Food Project is a Boston area non-profit seeking to improve food access and food equity, and ultimately to reform the food system through youth education and empowerment. To this end, the organization hires diverse crews of high-school age youth for summers of farming and participating in social justice workshops. I conducted a case study of the Lynn, MA branch, trying to answer the question: In what ways does The Food Project try to challenge the existing food system and its supporting discourses, and how are its efforts and effects on youth shaped by dominant discourses about health and healthy eating? For this case study, I conducted partially structured interviews with most of the youth in Root Crew (older youth with multiple summers of participation), and six months later, with three staff members who worked directly with the Root Crew. I examine the staff and youth experiences in the context of the dominant discourses about health and food. By comparing the staffs’ views and intentions in their work with the youths’ perceptions of what they are learning, I am able to reflect on the results of The Food Project’s program, both intentional and unintentional, and thus on its effectiveness. Ultimately I argue that because The Food Project exists within a society molded by the systems it is trying to question, both its impact and the organization itself are products and critiques of them.