Dissertations and Theses

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Public Health (DPH)


Community Health and Social Sciences


Nicholas Freudenberg

Committee Members

Emma K. Tsui

Jonathan Deutsch

Michelle Fine

Subject Categories

Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Food Studies | Public Health | Public Health Education and Promotion


narrative research, qualitative, youth, activism, social movements, food justice


With a rise in obesity and other non-communicable, diet-related health problems and the persistence of food insecurity among many vulnerable populations, the involvement of young people in the current, burgeoning food-justice movement has the potential to bring forth transformative changes to our food system and thus improve population health. While much is known about the outcomes of providing opportunities for young people to be actively and civically engaged in their communities, there is a lack of research on the pathways, narratives, and experiences that bring young people into food justice activism.

Through semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 25 young food activists in New York City, this dissertation identifies the key factors that contribute to young people’s involvement in food justice, with a focus on processes and pathways toward food-justice work, participation in the movement, and identity as activists. Analysis yielded numerous findings. First, food and food memories are central to these activists’ past, present, and imagined future. And while there are countless “moments” when they realized they wanted to pursue social justice as a career, the motivations were grounded in broader processes of exploration, hands-on learning and work experiences, needing to do something meaningful, and recognizing the role and impact of injustice, power, and privilege. Second, this path toward food justice is driven by the unique and powerful ways in which food can bridge and build communities, something that is crucially important to this group of young people. This finding is further related to their identity as activists, which is inextricably tied to the notion of work and commitment, as opposed to any labels or terminology. The work they do is a reflection of their personal identity, family values, ethics, culture, and past.

This study brings forward the powerful, intricate, and intimate stories of young people working to positively change their food systems, voices that have generally been missing from the narrative of the food movement. Results from this study thus seek to inform how public health practitioners and researchers can better support this thriving youth food movement and create pathways for future activists.



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