Illustration by Ania Webb
Illustration by Ania Webb

Exchange, or “intercambio” in Spanish, can take many forms. At Intercambio: Just Food/Justamente Comida, an event hosted by Community Agroecology Network (CAN), participants exchanged experiences of food injustice and traded cooking workshops, art and dialogue.

“It is really about exchanging your knowledge and experiences and practices with people who are on the ground working through the same struggles you are,” said Rose Cohen, executive director of CAN.

CAN is a Santa Cruz nonprofit that focuses on changing the food systems by working with global partnerships in Central America and Mexico. It hosted the regional youth exchange at Programs In Community and Agroecology (PICA) on campus on June 3 and in Watsonville on June 4. CAN and Friends of CAN (FoCAN), a student organization that works in conjunction with CAN, partnered to host both events.

This year, nine middle and high school-aged youth from Growing Justice, a CAN project that focuses on community gardens in Watsonville and Pajaro, attended the regional exchange at PICA. They were joined by 13 FoCAN interns and other local community members who shared their leadership methods, such as involvement in community garden spaces.

CAN has been hosting domestic and international intercambios since 2011. In previous years, students from FoCAN have gone to Mexico and Central America to learn about different agroecology tactics, take control of food systems in Central America and build relationships.

Intercambio was the first of a series of three events this month. Later this month CAN will host a video conference between the Santa Cruz community and its partners in Mexico and Central America to further its international dialogue about the realities of food injustice.

“We believe that food has the capacity to connect us to our cultural roots and to one another,” said FoCAN media and documentation coordinator Natalia Ubilla. “Food can also be a tool of resistance. It can nourish our bodies.”

Though Santa Cruz is an agricultural hub, Ubilla said, many who put the most labor into our food system face pesticide exposure, food insecurity and a lack of affordable healthy foods.

The event’s workshops focused on the historical and cultural significance of food — particularly on opuntia and avocados — as a way to connect participants with the roots of traditional meals.

“A lot of, for example, immigrant families, first-generation students or for any reason a minority, sometimes they feel like they have to adapt to a life here and leave how they used to eat,” said FoCAN marketing assistant Izamar Sanchez. “That is one of the goals I really want to enforce in this event, that they can feel safe to go back and to bring their culture and what they used to do in Mexico, or wherever they are from, here.”

The second day of Intercambio, held in Watsonville, opened with a panel from the Growing Justice Project where youth, Mesa Verde gardeners and the Watsonville community presented the importance of urban gardens as a central way to take control of their food.

Sanchez has worked with FoCAN since 2014 and participated in an international intercambio to Nicaragua with FoCAN. She said one of her goals for this intercambio was to diversify terms used to talk about food insecurity.

“I can say food sovereignty, food insecurity, decolonizing, agroecology, sustainability and sometimes all these words mean nothing to people,” Sanchez said. “So it is creating that and being able for students, youth, parents, everyone, for me to be able to go back to my mom and say [these words] and she will understand [them], fostering that in a way where everyone can understand it.”