by Rebecca Seawell
Assistant Editor for Reese Felts Digital Newsroom, Reesenews, Chapel Hill, NC
For the last two years, the Real Food Challenge has hosted its Southeastern Youth Food Activism Summit on UNC – Chapel Hill’s campus. But this year, North Carolina’s sustainable food enthusiasts will have to travel much further to participate.
Coordinators announced in December that the summit — held Feb. 11 to Feb. 13 — would be held in Athens, Georgia, for its third year.
The change is part of an effort to better incorporate young adults from a different region, said Melissa Tinling, one of the summit’s southeast regional field coordinators.
Miller Learning Center, UGA
“We’re trying to get other people and other ideas involved,” Tinling said. “It will be interesting to get a different subset from the southeast and to work more closely with students from other schools.”
The summit is an opportunity for young adults — mainly high school students, college students and recent graduates — across America to learn from each other and discover ways to make sustainable food more accessible, said Tinling.
The event is organized by the Real Food Challenge, a campaign that empowers young people throughout the nation to help increase access to healthy, local and sustainable food options on campuses and elsewhere.
“I think transport might be a little bit of a deterrent,” said Meghan Robbins, a participant of last year’s conference. “But I think it’s great, even though there will be less people from Chapel Hill, there will be more people from Georgia and we will get to hear things we wouldn’t be able to hear if it was happening here.”
Robbins, a sophomore anthropology major at UNC-CH, said that she had a positive experience at last year’s conference. Robbins said her interest in environmental sustainability led her to become interested in sustainable food.
Robbins said that one high school participant’s enthusiasm and passion for sustainable food, which inspired him to create a community garden at his school, particularly inspired her.
“At that point, I thought ‘I don’t have an excuse not to put my all into this anymore’,” Robbins said.
Alicia Sparks, who works with Tinling as a southeast regional field coordinator, said that the main goal of the summit is connecting and empowering.
“It’s about seeing the power that we do have and in an exciting way the responsibility we do have,” Sparks said. “I hope that people can see that by learning and working together.”
The summit’s attendance rates have more than doubled since its first year, when approximately 60 students participated, said Tingling. Even with this year’s relocation, coordinators expect more than 150 attendees.
“It definitely takes a lot of effort to push for the things we’re working on,” Sparks said. “It’s a very collective effort, but at the same time a diverse effort. It’s a challenge to stay connected to the common cause and maintain the network.”
Tinling said the change from a small college town to a more urban setting might help reign in new and fresh perspectives.
“The first day is centered on connecting, meeting people from all over the place and sharing stories about how we got here,” Tinling said.
The next day is all about learning, she said. Participants will attend workshops and listen to guest speakers lecture on subjects such as ecofeminism in food and how to start a campus garden.
“Sunday is more tangible,” Tingling said. “It’s about taking skills and ideas and how to bring them back here.”
The last day of the conference is also when participants attend panels and learn about what other organizations are working on in different parts of the southeast.
“It’s a weekend of workshops, networking, food and fun,” said Robbins, who is also a member of Fair, Local and Organic, a student-run organization that aims to increase access to organic, local and sustainable food on campus.
Despite the long drive, Robbins said she and several others plan on carpooling to Athens for the summit.
“There’s not a downside to improving the way you eat,” said Robbins. “You bring people and communities together — it’s at the heart of everything we do in our lives.”