Interview with Kathy Soll, CEO and Director of Teens For Food Justice

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Alexina Cather

Kathy Soll is the Chief Executive Officer and Director of Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ); an organization dedicated to bringing food equity to urban communities that experience significant challenges with good nutrition and healthy food access, by educating and empowering youth to be on the front lines of this work. Kathy co-founded TFFJ on the premise that hands-on volunteering and helping others builds character and creates a level-playing field where all individuals can contribute equally. She is passionate about service as a powerful tool for inspiring young people’s talents, resources, and abilities, and helping them grow.

A lifelong New Yorker, Kathy believes that all New Yorkers should be committed to ending food insecurity, hunger, and poor nutrition. Through her work with TFFJ, she connects youth to this mission, which she sees as a critical piece to achieving that goal. Prior to her work with TFFJ, Kathy raised and educated two children in New York City public and independent schools, and served in various leadership capacities within their schools and other community-based organizations.

I was able to do an email interview with Kathy about her work with TFFJ and improving access to healthy food in schools.

New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): You started Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ) in 2013 to empower teens and improve access to healthy food in underserved communities. What was your motivation to start the organization? Can you speak briefly about its successes and your goals for the future?

Kathy Soll (KS): Teens for Food Justice was a project that grew out of the nonprofit a friend and I founded in 2009 called Students for Service, which was created to provide ongoing educational and meaningful community service opportunities for New York City teens that would teach them about our city’s most pressing social justice issues, engage them in trying to solve those problems, and help them develop into civically engaged adults.  Food insecurity, poor nutrition, and the growing need for emergency food assistance, and appalling rates of food waste were issues we kept bumping up against as we worked with our teens and about which they were extremely concerned.  They were also really interested in the urban agricultural movement—citizens reclaiming land for food gardens, composting, implementing sustainable practices—and so we found ourselves focusing more and more on projects in these areas.

Our move into hydroponics was stimulated by a collective interest by our board in school rooftop growing as a solution to food and other resource inequality in communities.  Why waste all that good roof space when it could be used to educate kids, provide job training, feed people, and even, potentially, generate revenue? But, rooftop growing is expensive so we decided to start with a classroom farm, built and managed by kids, who would grow food in their schools and learn about and teach skills to improve health and nutrition to others in communities at-risk.

Now, we are about to begin Year 2 at a second site in Brooklyn, where we are growing 50-80 lbs of produce a month, and have two large high schools in the pipeline for 2017/18 that will grow thousands of pounds of produce a year for their school cafeterias and their communities in a classroom setting using high-tech vertical systems the students will build themselves.  We have also enlarged the program from a once- or twice-monthly Saturday volunteer initiative to an ongoing afterschool model that is fully integrated into the culture of the school and influences all aspects of learning.

FPC: Can you talk about the impact that hands-on garden education has had on the schools TFFJ serves and their surrounding communities?

KS: The farm is so unlike anyone’s expectations for a school environment that it becomes a focal point for the entire student, staff and parent body and a major draw for school events.  We consistently see increases in student and family attendance at out-of-school-time activities that involve the farm, demos and tastings of recipes featuring the produce the students grow, and harvest distributions. We have been able to document increased consumption of produce by participating students and their families and a shifts in attitudes towards making healthier food choices by kids and parents through ongoing exposure to the program. Teachers use the farm for all aspects of teaching, even those which you would not expect, such as debate and argumentative writing focussed on the pros and cons of various non-traditional agricultural methods.

The students who participate in the Teens for Food Justice program grow into a confident, collaborative and expressive team, proud of what they’ve built and full of new knowledge to share with their communities.  As they work together to engineer their high-capacity, indoor, vertical hydroponic farm (from reading design documents and building the structural parts to assembling and connecting the pumping equipment and planting and tending the seeds), they gain a solid understanding of the mechanics and science of a cutting-edge urban agricultural technology, skills they can apply to all aspects of their education and future professional lives. They become chemists, measuring and adjusting pH and electro-conductivity to keep their crops healthy, biologists, tending to plants from seed to harvest and mastering the inner workings of how they process nutrients, store energy, and grow, and engineers, building machines that grow food for their schools and communities. These students also become nutrition and fitness experts, learning from chefs and athletes how to create and enjoy healthy, balanced meals and stay active and strong. And, they have developed and honed key leadership and communication skills as ambassadors for nutrition and health, through farm tours, cooking demos and fitness workshops they are providing to their peers and families. As the year goes on, you see shy kids come out of their shells and speak confidently and proudly about their work with TFFJ and kids from very different social circles come together like a family through the farm.

FPC: How can other schools create successful hands-on educational gardening programs? Do you have specific advice for other educators who wish to improve students’ health at their schools?

KS: The key to a successful hands-on educational gardening program that can improve student and community health is total school support and buy in. We have been so fortunate in our latest school partnership with Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn and its leaders, Amy Piller and Emily Paige, who have supported this program from day one and integrated it into school culture in every possible way as has our afterschool partner, Citizen Schools. We are also hugely supported by the existing Wellness in the Schools (WITS) program, which daily reinforces health and nutrition messages through its transformation of the food that is served in the cafeteria into fresh-made, high value meals and with which we have a fantastic partnership to bring the food we grow into the cafeteria experience and into community outreach activities. All of these elements need to be in place to have real and lasting impact on student and community health.

FPC: How would you like to see policy help improve nutrition in schools, and access to nutrition education?

KS: First, procurement regulations need to be modified so that fresh, locally-grown food can be easily and affordably brought into schools and purchased from local growers, both nearby farmers and on-site gardens and farms. Cafeterias have to be retooled to serve fresh-made, nutritionally-balanced meals free of highly processed ingredients and featuring produce.  Funding has to be made available for nutrition education as part of in-school curriculum and afterschool learning tied to growing and for in-school farming programs that connect kids with real food that they grow themselves and then consume.  What is more delicious and better than something you proudly grew with your own hands?

 FPC: What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for NYC? And the greatest opportunities?

KS: Untangling all of the bureaucratic threads and regulations that hinder systemwide change—not a small challenge.  But, through the many organizations and educators exposing children to fresh, locally-grown, healthier food and food as a social justice issue, we have the potential to raise a generation for whom making this change will be a top priority.

FPC: What is the one food issue you would like to see addressed by the presidential candidates/a new presidential administration?

KS: A policy agenda that recognizes how many lives and how much money could be saved if access to affordable, healthy food was seen as a basic human right and a societal priority.   If you start from that premise, you change our agricultural system, our institutional food system, the landscape of our neighborhoods, and the daily experience of millions of people.

FPC: What do you see as sources for positive change in our food system?

KS: The greatest source for positive food system change is that people are paying attention to this issue across the board.  10 years ago, only a handful of people talked about food justice, food waste, poor quality food in schools, the importance of community gardens and growing food locally and now these are everyone’s hot topics.

FPC: Finally, what do you consider to be Teens for Food Justice’s greatest victory thus far?

KS: Being a part of that shift in the conversation.  Who can resist kids talking happily and proudly about a delicious, healthy meal they made from ingredients they grew themselves?


Grew up in: Manhattan

Background and Education: Educated in New York City public and independent schools; New York University

One word you would use to describe our food system: Broken

Food policy heroes: Every time I go to a conference and hear somebody speak about these issues, I add to my list.  But a top pick for me is Barbara Turk.

Your breakfast this morning: Oatmeal with bananas and walnuts

Favorite food: Avocado

Social media must follow/Food policy website(s) you read: NYC Food Policy Watch—such a great curator of food policy news from everywhere.

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