Empowering youth to make a positive impact in their community

By Molly Sauvain, Education Coordinator

On Saturday, May 14, the halls of Turners Falls High School were bustling with activity as students from all over Western Massachusetts were gathered for the annual Pioneer Valley Youth Conference, organized by Community Action Youth Programs. This year, for the first time, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts partnered with the local youth event to offer a special intensive track entitled “Ending Hunger and Building Food Security in Our Community.”


Led by Food Bank staff, a committee of community partners organized this intensive to strengthen youth ties to the anti-hunger movement, and allow interested students to learn, network, and further their social involvement. The committee met monthly to craft this effective and engaging youth gathering, attracting a group of middle and high school students with a shared interest in food justice and anti-hunger work.

The Food Bank’s intensive track was structured around three workshops, each one serving as scaffolding for the next to facilitate information sharing, personal exploration, and skill building:

  1. The first was led by a team from the Institute for Community Research (Hartford, CT), asking participants to explore the concept of individual identity and build from there to create a shared definition of “food justice.”
  2. The second, led by a group from Nuestras Raíces in Holyoke, was a hands-on activity, focused on using healthy foods to prepare a meal. It provided a forum to delve into topics such as local food, food labeling, and culturally appropriate foods.
  3. The last workshop, presented by Sarah Bankert and Caitlin Marquis of Healthy Hampshire, transformed students into community organizers-in-training, as they practiced the skills required to be food systems change-makers. They were provided realistic neighborhood-level food insecurity scenarios, and tasked with developing solutions to those challenges.

One of the highlights from the afternoon included a Youth Panel comprised of five students from Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (Holyoke). Each young person spoke about their lives, the challenges they see in their neighborhoods, and what role they and their peers play in its solution. As each spoke, one of the underlying truths that spurred this Intensive was brought to the forefront — that empowered young people are change-makers.

As the day came to an end, you could feel the passion in these young people to make positive change in their communities. They left the conference with new knowledge, skills, and inspiration to achieve their own personal goals around food security. From facilitating a discussion of the definition of food justice with other area students, to volunteering at a community garden, each set forth with their own ideas of how they can make a powerful impact in their schools and neighborhoods.