An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Expert Perspective

Vital Village Networks: Community Food Systems Fellowship


November 15th, 2022


Through its Community Food Systems Fellowship, Vital Village Networks is creating opportunities for emerging leaders who are committed to justice, equity, and improving their local food systems to promote health. Fellows engage in a peer-led space that supports them to think creatively about hunger, food insecurity, land access, and other challenges their communities are grappling with, and what it would take to achieve transformative change—not only as individual agents of change, but as a movement of grassroots leaders across the country committed to expanding agency and ownership of local food systems. 

The program provides community leaders and leaders of color with the resources they need to learn from and with one another. It’s designed to lift up the capacity of historically excluded groups, elevate their voices, and strengthen practices to engage their communities in building a food system that honors their ability to live a full and thriving life.

These fellows, based around the country, are building more equitable, sustainable food systems in many different ways. While each fellow has a unique approach, a vision shared by all is honoring the dignity of every member of our food system—from our farm and factory workers to every child who eats a school lunch—and redesigning a system that meets their needs. Meet the fellows and learn more about their work!

Sowing the Seeds of Food Sovereignty

Ashley Rouse

Ashley Rouse, Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project at the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education in Berkeley, California

How can fostering healthy connections between kids and their food help transform communities? Ashley Rouse, a mom of three and leader in the farm-to-school movement, spends a lot of time considering this question. After motherhood compelled her to re-evaluate her family’s relationship with food, she was inspired to transform the local food system in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Working with the Captain Planet Foundation, she helped local schools set up sustainable gardens, teach young people how to grow food in ways that help the environment, and use the produce to feed students and the community. Building on her success in Atlanta, Ashley is now at the forefront of the national farm-to-school movement as the Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project at the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education in Berkley, California. Ashley believes that the power of a seed is limitless. This belief is at the heart of the Edible Education Curriculum, which teaches students about nourishment, stewardship, and community through hands-on cooking and gardening lessons. By confidently cooking with the foods that they grew and harvested, students witness the power of the seeds they sowed. Through this experiential education, students realize that they, too, have limitless power and potential to critically examine and change the food system in their communities.

Read more about how Ashley and the Edible Schoolyard Project are transforming communities through an edible education.

Connecting the Disconnected through Care and Advocacy

Erica Hall

Erica Hall, Board Chair and Executive Director of the Florida Food Policy Council, and Executive Committee Vice-Chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club in St. Petersburg, Florida

If you ask Erica Hall what she does, she’ll tell you she brings people together. As the oldest of six kids, longtime community organizer, and U.S. Army veteran, Erica has been a caregiver and advocate throughout her life. She draws on her experiences fighting for herself and for others to create inclusive spaces, diversify positions of leadership, and forge connections that encourage people from different backgrounds to work together on improving food security in Florida’s underserved communities. Through her work with the Florida Food Policy Council, Erica helps lead forums and community conversations about hunger, climate change, and policies to advance food justice in the state’s food systems. Erica is an Executive Committee Member of the Suncoast Sierra Club and on the Executive Committee of the Florida Chapter, Sierra Club and the Executive Committee of the Council of Club Leaders of the Sierra Club. Erica is also a member of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Food Security Advisory Committee.

Read more about Erica’s work with the Florida Food Policy Council.

Promoting Health and Preserving Our Cultural Heritage

Jackie Leung

Jackie Leung, Executive Director of the Micronesian Islander Community in Salem, Oregon

When Jackie Leung first moved to Salem, Oregon, she was seeking community, so she volunteered to host a table as a volunteer radio DJ at an event hosted by the Micronesian Islander Community (MIC), a nonprofit working to support Micronesian and Pacific Islanders. With a background in public health, Jackie began working with MIC and soon recognized how many families in her community were struggling to access or afford the food and care they needed to be healthy. Now, as Executive Director of MIC, Jackie helps deliver critical services to Micronesian and Pacific Islander communities in the Pacific Northwest, including a leadership program for parents and caregivers, prenatal care support for families, food distribution, job training for community health workers and health care interpreters, and a series of classes on Micronesian foods, recipes, and cooking. Every program, including MIC’s annual celebration, is designed to honor and conserve the Micronesian culture.

Read more about how Jackie and MIC are nourishing and caring for the communities they serve.

Honoring Lakota Values to Empower Younger Generations

Julie Garreau

Julie Garreau / Wičhaȟpi Epatȟaŋ Wiŋ, Executive Director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, South Dakota

Born and raised on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Julie Garreau sees her Lakota values as a toolkit needed to get through life. These values—to care for, honor, and respect the members of her community and tribe—inspired Julie to found the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP), which serves hundreds of children and families across the reservation. Julie and her team at CRYP are dedicated to building a thriving future for Lakota youth. That means strengthening connections to culture, revitalizing language, encouraging healthy lifestyles, and grounding every program in Wólakȟota, the Lakota people’s sacred way of life. One of her passion projects involves nurturing the Winyan Toka Win Garden, which her mother helped start decades ago as a way to foster connections between generations of Lakota families and between people and the earth. The community garden not only teaches Lakota youth about their traditional foods and cultural heritage, it’s also a source of fresh, healthy food on the campus and is sold to the community through a seasonal farm stand.

Learn more about how Julie and CRYP are impacting future generations, protecting their culture, and reclaiming their land.

Called by Faith to Feed a Community with Dignity

Mary Ann Buggs

Mary Ann Buggs, Administrative Director at Faith Food Fridays in Vallejo, California

Shortly after Mary Ann Buggs and her husband Benjamin moved to Vallejo, California, Benjamin shared that he felt God was telling him to feed their new community. Already working full-time at Wells Fargo, the pair began distributing food to about 35 families once a week, through a part-time initiative they called Faith Food Fridays. Now, 11 years later, Faith Food Fridays has become Mary Ann’s full-time passion. She leads a team that helps feed more than 600 families a week while sharing faith and connections to local resources. Recognizing the historical importance of foods to different cultures and ethnicities, including her own, Mary Ann believes that nutritious foods are foods that make people feel whole physically, spiritually, and culturally. Mary Ann strives to provide her community with the foods they want to feed their children and the foods they were brought up on. She challenges those who are working to address hunger to ask themselves “If I were hungry, would I want to eat this?”

Read more about Mary Ann’s commitment to end hunger in her community.

Decolonizing Diets and Revitalizing Relationships with Indigenous Foods

Michelle Week

Michelle Week, Farmer at x̌ast sq̓it (Good Rain Farm) in Portland, Oregon

How do we honor Indigenous knowledge and cultures  stolen by colonization? For Michelle Week, the answer is to connect with her ancestral traditions and feed people as a way to help her community regain access to many of the nutritious foods that are important to their culture and history. Michelle is a first generation farmer who owns and operates x̌ast sq̓it, which translates to Good Rain Farm in her Sinixt native language. Focusing on Indigenous and Pacific Northwest foods, x̌ast sq̓it is a community-supported agriculture program that’s led by and in service to Native people.

Learn more about Michelle’s work to help build a cooperative business that supports native food sovereignty and a healthier, more just future for her community.

Turning Challenges Into Opportunities for Health and Community

Nakia Sims

Nakia Sims, Leader at National Public Housing Museum and Taylor Street Farms in Chicago, Illinois, and Leader at Black Girl Bubble Tea

Nakia Sims has always dreamed big. At eight years old, she tried to start her first business. She went on to earn her law degree and today is an entrepreneur and advocate for affordable housing and economic equity. Growing up, Nakia became increasingly aware of the limitations society put on her as a Black woman. She’s spent her life overcoming adversity and helping others do the same. When Nakia found herself experiencing homelessness and in need of WIC and food stamps benefits after graduating from law school, she faced challenges navigating the benefits programs and noticed the systems had no Black representation. This inspired Nakia to work at the intersection of homelessness and food insecurity, finding creative ways to help people in public housing access fresh, local produce and opportunities to earn a living wage.

Read more about Nakia’s continued work to address hunger and health in ways that also promote economic inclusion.

We Grow Where We Live!


Pampi, Interdisciplinary Culture Worker at Neighborhood Grow Plan in Holyoke/Boston, Massachusetts

A second-generation Indian-American of casteD-Bengali descent and newcomer-settler of lands of the Pocumtuc and Nipmuc peoples, Pampi is an interdisciplinary culture worker. Anticipating how the COVID-19 pandemic would compound risks for food insecurity, Pampi partnered with community organizers and culture workers to found Neighborhood Grow Plan (NGP). Together, Pampi and their collective support neighbors to break out of isolation and to build community by growing food together. NGP shares cultural organizing tools such as the zine, haiku, and community theater with youth organizers across New England to incorporate in their communities’ food justice campaigns; grows seedlings for distribution in container gardening kits designed to deter animals; maintains a perennial food forest as a study in intersectional climate justice and subsistence farming; prepares food medicine centering gut and mental health quarterly with delivery as a peoples’ apothecary; provides stipends to local culture workers to create new work exploring the liberatory potential of growing food in community; and passes on peoples’ technologies, such as building cob ovens at community gardens to facilitate cooking on-site. NGP’s big vision remains making temporary greenhouses as a two-part strategy to ensure communities living adjacent to lands held in trust are actively accessing that land for growing food year round, thus enabling land trusts to secure more land.

Learn more about how Pampi and Neighborhood Grow Plan build community by growing food.

Connecting People through Food and the Stories They Hold

Pantaleon Florez

Pantaleon Florez III, Owner and Operator of Maseualkualli Farms in Lawrence, Kansas

Denouncing harmful agricultural practices instituted by colonialism, Pantaleon uplifts and implements Indigenous forms of agriculture at Maseualkualli Farms, a no-till, no fossil fuel cultivation farm. Pantaleon, who is of Mexican descent, stewards ancestral and other Indigenous Mexican crops like maize, jicama, and xitomatl for local restaurants, food companies, and the people in his community. As a farmer of color, Pantaleon and other BIPOC farmers experience racism, inhumane wages and working conditions, and other challenges that their non-BIPOC counterparts do not. To cope with these challenges and connect with other farmers facing similar battles, Pantaleon writes, sharing his stories through poems, essays, and social media. He also advocates for food systems reform. His original policy Food as Public Work, for example, would subsidize the production of local food to directly provide fresh produce and prepared foods to people who lack access to affordable local foods. He has started a local letter-writing campaign to prompt policymakers to pilot Food as a Public Work. Pantaleon knows that centuries of racism, harmful agricultural practices, and broken food systems will never be remedied in his lifetime, but what we do now will impact the world our children inherit.

Read more about how Pantaleon is working to create a better food system for future generations.

Liberation through Healing, Growing, Learning, and Sharing


Steph Niaupari, Founder of Plantita Power in Washington, DC

Everyone deserves the right to safely feed themselves and their community without limitations or the threat of violence. That belief is at the core of Steph Niaupari’s work with LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities in Washington, D.C. Queer and BIPOC people often face challenges accessing healthy, affordable food and food-centered safe spaces, like food pantries, where they are required to show ID in order to eat. To help queer and BIPOC people get the nutrition they need, Steph founded Plantita Power, a food and body liberation movement. Plantita grows food and plants and gives them directly to mutual aid sites and to queer and BIPOC people who want to learn to grow their own food. Steph believes everyone has a right to decide what nutrition means to them and their body. What is healthy to one person might not be an accessible option for everyone, so Steph gives the people in their community the knowledge to decide for themselves what makes them feel healthy and whole. For example, one person in their community had only ever had lettuce on a McChicken sandwich, because lettuce had never been accessible to them before, so Steph taught them how to make a chicken sandwich at home with lettuce that Plantita grew.

Watch this video to learn more about how Steph’s work is helping to foster healing journeys. 

Building a Seat at the Table for Everyone

Tailor Cobb

Tailor Coble, Food Access and Community Education Coordinator for FRESHFARM Markets in Washington, DC

Born and bred in Washington, D.C., Tailor’s love and passion for food and cooking was grown from family get-togethers. As Tailor grew older, this passion grew into a commitment to making sure that everyone has the opportunity to eat food that nourishes them, from the inside out – starting at a young age. As leader of the FoodPrints program—a holistic food education program in 19 D.C. public schools—Tailor created opportunities for students in pre-K through fifth grade and their caregivers to connect with their food, learn to prepare it, and experience new foods through repeated exposure in a zero pressure environment. Through her curriculum, she has seen previously picky eaters get excited for kale and quinoa salads by the end of the school year. Building on FoodPrint’s success, Tailor adapted the program to serve early childcare providers and families, educating them about the influential role they play in shaping the palettes and eating habits of the children they care for and providing them with the resources to create the right environment for children to want to try new foods. By helping people connect with their food and overcome the limitations in securing and preparing local foods, Tailor is working to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table and no one goes hungry.

Read more about Tailor’s work.

Making an Impact From Seed to Plate

Tevin Gray

Tevin Gray, Owner of Keepers of the Garden in Corpus Christi, Texas

No matter our origins, we all have a shared history with the land. Tevin Gray wants to reawaken that shared history and protect ancient wisdom by passing it on to younger generations. At Keepers of the Garden, students from first to eighth grade are given a unique, hands-on opportunity to learn about the food system from seed to plate. Starting in the garden, students learn to grow, harvest, preserve, prepare, and sell their own food at local farmers’ markets and to local businesses. By having a stake in the life cycle of their food, Tevin finds his students develop a greater understanding and appreciation for what a food system is and how they can help create a healthier, more sustainable food system for their community. When COVID-19 forced Tevin to cancel in-person lessons, students’ own gardens helped keep them grounded, offering them something tangible and real when their world was dominated by virtual interactions. When school reopened, students came to class with pictures of what they grew at home. While Tevin knows not every student will keep gardening, he also believes that by helping kids reconnect with their food, every student who comes through Keepers of the Garden will be empowered with the option to take control and rewrite their relationship with food and the food system.

Read more about the program Tevin leads.

Creating Sustainable Solutions to End Health Disparities

Yasmine Anderson

Yasmine Anderson, CEO of Black Women in Charge, Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana

How do you create lasting and impactful lifestyle changes that empower people to live healthier lives? Yasmine and her team at Black Women in Charge, Inc. (BWC) know that the community already has the answers. Autonomy is at the core of BWC’s mission. Guided by community voice, BWC provides the support, education, and resources necessary for everyone to make full, informed decisions about their diet and lifestyle. Yasmine has found that empowering people with resources and options leads to more community buy-in and sustainable change. After listening to what the community needed, BWC partnered with the USDA to launch a Grocery Prescription Program for people living in food insecure areas. Participants are given vouchers biweekly that can be spent at locally owned grocery stores and farmers’ markets, helping to support the local economy, too. Yasmine and BWC also challenge people in positions of privilege to confront their privilege by showing them data on the cost of feeding a family. When presented with real data about the impact they could make for a family experiencing food insecurity, they found many people are happy to reallocate some of their resources to others.

Read more about how Yasmine’s work through BWC is creating sustainable change and closing the health disparities gap.

Related Content

See All