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Michigan Nightlight Voices: What I learned as a 10th grader about the food system in Detroit

Carla Underwood

As the summer of my 10th grade year approached, I wasn't sure what I would do. Sure, I'd sleep in late some days and hang out with friends, but I also wanted to do something productive. Perhaps sensing my indecisiveness, my former health teacher, Mr. Valasek, emailed me about the youth program at the Detroit Food Policy Council
 
I was immediately interested because of my love for volunteering at community gardens, soup kitchens, and food pantries. Also, I was excited to learn more about how the food system worked in Detroit and across the nation. The experience ended up shaping my whole worldview. 
 
Throughout the summer, we visited many different food-related businesses and organizations. We learned about the different markets and grocery stores in Detroit, which opened my eyes to how scarce fresh food is here. I never put much thought into it before because my family is blessed enough to have reliable transportation to grocery stores and markets. But the program made me realize that many people are not as fortunate as me, and that we need solutions to the problem of scarcity.
 
Visiting the farm at Calder Dairy was incredibly fun. We got to see rabbits, horses, and cows, feed ducks, goats, and sheep, and eat some of the most delicious ice cream I've ever tasted. This session also sparked an interesting conversation about fresh food and the way that animals are treated on farms. 
 
But the most enlightening session was when we learned about food system workers. Many work unreasonably long hours doing hard jobs in awful conditions—it's unbelievable to think that these work conditions exist right here in America. 
 
We got to see firsthand the efforts of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in Detroit, an organization whose mission is to improve the wages and working conditions for our nation's 12 million restaurant workers. The union has gotten employers to pay fair wages and provide benefits, among other wins for employees. Before this session, I had no idea that ROC United existed and that working conditions could be so hard. This session was truly eye-opening, and showed me what organizing, passion, and teamwork can do. 
 
After completing all of the sessions and learning so much about the food system in Detroit, I helped plan the Youth Summit, which brings together upper middle and high school students from across Detroit to discuss food system issues. All of the workshops are taught by participants of the youth program and an adult helper on the topics we discussed during our summer experiences.
 
After learning so much about food assistance programs, food labeling, and the processes of making and selling food in the United States, I chose to lead a workshop on the politics of food and equity. Information about the politics of food was spilling out of me every time I went to a grocery store, a restaurant, or even the farmers market. The Youth Summit was an amazing opportunity to not only share what I learned with my peers, but also work on my organization, communication, and public speaking skills. And I got to think about new, creative ways to engage others in a topic I'm passionate about. 
 
The youth program at the Detroit Food Policy Council educated me and others on the food system. Eventually my generation will be making the political decisions that will help (or harm) Detroit in the future. I hope everyone my age can have an experience like mine. 
 
Carla Underwood, self-proclaimed student activist and community organizer, is an 11th grade student at Western International High School in Detroit. She also worked in a paid position as a good food ambassador in Detroit grocery stores promoting the Double Up Food Bucks program from January to April. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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