By Katie Warner, YES! Team Lead and Co-Founder

Young people under the age of 18 make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, yet their potential as a generation to contribute to a better society is systematically ignored. Our nation is suffering economically, creatively, and civilly as a result. Empowering young people to participate in effective youth-adult partnerships is a proven, replicable approach to solving community problems. Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) has developed a nationally-recognized model of social change through youth empowerment and works to leverage the unique skills and power of young people.

YES! is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization centered on the idea that real community change cannot take place without the contributions of young people. Using the YES! Youth Empowerment Model®, YES! works with youth to develop a deep critical awareness about the root causes of the issues that impact them, then works with them to develop the skills necessary to understand these complex issues, and engage in collaboration to effectively identify and advocate for solutions to those issues.

YES! also centers our work on capacity-building and support of adults and organizations as they navigate news systems and structures to understand the importance of youth empowerment and build their own capacity to work with youth in ways that support their mission. By engaging youth in our work, organizations and communities become more creative, resourceful, tech savvy, powerful, and successful at creating meaningful and sustainable solutions for community challenges.

YES! has been applying the YES! Youth Empowerment Model® to food access and food justice work since 2008. Our efforts have primarily focused on southern rural communities as we have built and tailored our approach to empower and meet the needs of youth of color, of low-wealth or living in a rural community. Over the past four years, YES! has mobilized a network of more than 350 teams of Youth and Adults that work locally on policy, system and environmental changes that increase access to healthy affordable food. In our home state of North Carolina, we have been able to galvanize partners statewide to move state level policy to support a Healthy Corner Store initiative.

As YES! continues to grow, we are adding more partners to the YES! Youth Network, engaging with new stakeholders, training new partners, supporting their farm to school efforts at the local level and lifting up the stories of youth and adults across the country doing phenomenal work to increase access and education around healthy food, food justice and youth empowerment.

YES! is excited to be partnering with the National Farm to School Network to celebrate National Farm to School Month and want to take the opportunity to share a few partner highlights to showcase their efforts and successes.  

Neighborhood garden transforms community Pinehurst, North Carolina
Yolonda Moore of the Sandhills Cooperation Association saw her family, friends, and neighbors eating only processed foods. Yolonda moved from Durham where she was involved in the local community garden scene, to a 0.5 acre plot in Pinehurst, NC and decided that she was going to start growing her own produce to offset the high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables sold at stores in her community. After a few years of successfully growing food for her family, Yolonda saw a real need to bring education around growing food to her neighborhood, so she teamed up with youth in her community and YES!. Together, with a small mini grant and training and support from YES!, the youth-adult team started spreading the word about food deserts and how this small neighborhood garden could transform the community. More and more community members got involved and Yolonda’s family garden became a community garden where the team of youth and adults now teach educational classes about growing food and nutrition and host cooking demos using produce grown in the garden. This community garden is also used by local homeschool families for educational purposes. Yolonda and the youth that participate in gardening activities estimate that they donate excess produce to around 50 people each growing season. Because of training provided by YES!, the youth from Pinehurst also participated in several advocacy activities, including attending a Youth Advocacy Day at the NC General Assembly to advocate for state level policy to decrease food deserts across NC.

Community gardens lead to advocacy
Springfield, Missouri
Through the Healthy Eating Active Living grant with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department has been piloting a new youth-led effort: the Youth Health and Wellness Council.  The council has worked with local organizations, such as the Springfield Community Gardens (SCG), to influence change in the community around nutrition and food access. Over the last two years, the Youth Health & Wellness Council worked with SCG to increase awareness, knowledge and engagement within the gardens through designing and providing name and welcome signs for each garden, purchasing bus advertisements to promote the gardens, and hosting a Family Fun Day event at one of the local gardens.  This year, the Health Department is partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Springfield to continue work around policy and environmental changes in the community around healthy eating, active living, and tobacco.  This year’s Youth Health & Wellness Council kicked off with a YES! Advocacy 101 Youth Training!

Second Chance Breakfast to Increase Food AccessAsheville, North Carolina
Asheville High School (AHS) is home to roughly 1,400 students and the school itself stands out in many ways because of outstanding academic and athletic programs, but additionally because it houses a high population of students on free and reduced lunch. The campus is large, with students reporting a 15-20 minute walk from one side to the other, and there are transportation issues that often force students to take city buses to get to and from school. These issues add up to quite a few students missing breakfast. After researching many options, youth from AHS’s Student Government Association (SGA), partnered with YES!, and the school nutrition director to bring Second Chance Breakfast to their campus. After several months of work, in which students surveyed their peers to gather support and determined what types of foods students would purchase most often, they spoke directly with decision makers at the school, the decision was made to purchase a food cart to sit in the middle of campus for students to pick up a quick and nutritious breakfast on their way to class. Students on free and reduced lunch were able to use this benefit at the breakfast cart or in the cafeteria, depending on which best fit their schedule. The SGA also successfully advocated for a longer break between classes to give students extra time to stop by the cart. YES! supported AHS’s SGA by providing guidance with action planning for this project, and helping strategize and prep for meetings with key decision makers at the school. Data collected by the school nutrition program showed that Second Chance Breakfast served nearly 200 students every day and increased the number of students eating breakfast at the high school by 26.5%. To read more, download your free copy of the Second Chance Breakfast Change Chronicle here.