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Katherine Soll

CEO, Cofounder and President, Teens For Food Justice

“Be collaborative and get input from the people you want to serve. In addition, seek out advisers, thought leaders and partnerships that will help you understand existing efforts.”

I cofounded Teens for Food Justice in 2013 when I was 53, with the goal of finding ways to eradicate food insecurity and the staggering health implications that come with it in our low-income communities, particularly communities of color. We want to generate a climate where people really understand that access to good-quality, fresh, healthy food is a basic human right.

The problem I’m trying to solve

There’s a tremendous imbalance in resource allocation tied to racism and income disparities in our society — and the issue of food equity is included in that. From 2016 to 2018, 12.2 percent of the population in New York City suffered from food insecurity, including 16.2 percent of all children, according to the latest report from Hunger Free America. Even the impact of COVID-19 is greater among food insecure, low-income communities of color because they have higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diseases that stem from unhealthy diets, making them more at risk for severe cases of COVID.

It is not acceptable that some communities have access to whole foods and some communities have access to junk food. We’re trying to address food insecurity by engaging youth and the next generation to be problem-solvers who can really understand this issue, come up with tangible solutions and become thought leaders on food equity.

The moment that sparked my passion

It was really led by the kids we worked with at Students for Service, a nonprofit I cofounded in 2010 to provide active volunteer opportunities to youth in New York City. The areas the kids were most concerned about were food insecurity and a sustainable approach to food production and access. Of the many projects that were offered through Students for Service, participation was highest in those that addressed emergency food access, community gardening and composting projects. The kids were really concerned about how to feed a growing planet with shrinking resources in a sustainable way.

What I wish other people knew

You don’t have to live in poverty to be food insecure — it’s a much bigger problem. Working families face meal gaps — the difference between how much they have to pay for basic necessities, such as rent, every month and what’s left to pay for food. Food becomes a discretionary spending item, and that’s really not OK. Food insecurity is a function of this gap and what kind of food is available in the communities where you live. I wish people knew how widespread food insecurity is across different demographic groups. Building that awareness has the potential to create fundamental changes to the food-scape in our country.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Be collaborative and get input from the people you want to serve. In addition, seek out advisers, thought leaders and partnerships that will help you understand existing efforts. Surround yourself with people who can give feedback on what you’re doing right and what you could be doing better and be open to that feedback.

Why my approach is unique

Teens for Food Justice takes a multipronged, wraparound approach to ending food inequity. It’s a 360-degree experience for the teens who build and run indoor hydroponic farms in their schools — farms that can yield up to 14,000 pounds of fresh produce annually at a single location. They learn how to eat more healthfully and convey that information to their community, and they distribute their fresh produce to people, so they’re really ambassadors for the entire process. They’re growing food not only for the community around the school but also to change what’s being served in the cafeteria every day. The students also have opportunities to talk to the media and elected officials about food insecurity. We are positively impacting our youth at every point in the process as they develop the skills and confidence to speak to these issues and make changes in their world.