FoodWhat?! Youth Cultivate Community, Leadership, and Empowerment at Local Farms

Jun 1, 2018

In a commercial kitchen near the FoodWhat?! Farm, three teenagers and two adults prepare mini pie crusts for an event the following morning. The dough they’re rolling out and gently pressing into cupcake-sized tins will be filled with fresh strawberries grown and harvested at FoodWhat’s north county site on the UCSC Farm by local high school students. After preparing the soil, planting the berries, and finally harvesting the fruit, the students have not only cultivated a healthy crop, but each have had spurts of personal growth along the way.

The group is part of FoodWhat?!, a youth empowerment and food justice organization that works with low-income and struggling high school teens in Santa Cruz County. Through its farming and culinary programs located on their farm sites in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, FoodWhat gives youth the opportunity to provide financial support to their families while gaining job and leadership skills and healthy eating habits. Perhaps most importantly though, it provides a safe space where teens can explore their identities, find their voice, and step into their power.

“We provide a supporting, nurturing, and loving community that creates the space to find your own path.”

- FoodWhat Director, Doron Comerchero

Quantity and Quality

Over the past three years FoodWhat?! has received nearly $150,000 from the Community Foundation, thanks in part to contributions from donor-advised fundholders like John M. Sobrato. This has allowed the nonprofit to serve more youth without sacrificing the quality and depth of their programming. “We will only expand if we can maintain that depth,” explains Comerchero. “The only way we can do that is with support like that provided by the Community Foundation.”

This funding allowed FoodWhat?! to respond to an ever increasing demand for their programming. After spring internship applications spiked from 154 to 250 youth in 2017, they were able to add a Watsonville cohort. The number of spring interns grew by 50% and they nearly doubled the number of paid fall job positions for youth from 27 to 49. All youth served bring home paychecks and fresh food to their families. Seventy high school students participated in their core programs and an additional 750 teens and community members took part in youth-led events, peer-to-peer in school education, affordable farm stands, and outreach at community events. As of January 1, 2017, FoodWhat became an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit, growing their team from 3 to 7 senior staff.

Building Bridges with Food

Evelyn, one of the pie-makers and a high school senior, learned to cook through FoodWhat?! and now enjoys spending time in the kitchen making tofu scrambles and tending her garden. “Being here really saved my life,” says Evelyn. “I also discovered my passion for horticulture and cooking.”

Eustolia, a reserved teenager with big brown eyes and a soft voice, joined FoodWhat?! after her father passed away. “I was grieving and just living in my own small bubble,” she says. “There are a lot of positive people at FoodWhat?! and I learned how to communicate and be a leader and how to turn a negative situation into a good one.”

As they roll out pie dough side by side, chatting about their parents and classes, there’s an ease and openness to the girls’ conversation that’s rarely found amongst teenagers. Eustolia and Evelyn may have unique stories and struggles, but they’re able to connect and overcome their obstacles together over the shared experience of working in the soil and cooking in the kitchen.

“Food is so universal,” explains Comerchero. “Food and farming creates a positive space for anybody in any possible context with any possible identity. No matter who you are, rich or poor, you gotta eat. Food is a bridge builder.”

What's Next?

FoodWhat currently pays its program participants a stipend in the spring and an hourly wage of $11 in the summer, but the organization is looking at how they can raise that wage to provide additional stability. “We just did a survey and saw that close to 100% of youth we serve contribute to their family income,” says Comerchero. “So now we’re asking, what would it look like if we raised their salary above minimum wage and contribute to an even greater level of family stability? What can emerge from that?”

In order for FoodWhat?! to provide their core programming or this additional stability to Santa Cruz County’s youth, reliable funding is critical. “Core program support is key for ongoing operations,” says Comerchero. “Partners like the Community Foundation give us the capacity to have a vision beyond what we’re doing now, creating the ground for innovation.”

"Partners like the Community Foundation give us the capacity to have a vision beyond what we’re doing now, creating the ground for innovation.”


And that innovation is changing the lives of our teens and creating the space for them to reach further than they thought possible. It’s providing them with the opportunity to grow, unencumbered by the weight of the world on their shoulders. Aurelio, a recent high school graduate with dark glasses and a ready smile has the perfect analogy:

“It’s super healing for me to go into the land and just take the weeds out and watch the plants grow. Some things in our lives are like weeds and if we don’t take care of them, they can take over. If we take care of the weeds, we have more resources and we flourish.”

Written by

Kevin Heuer