Participants of the FOLCS Kindred Gathering stand together in a garden, all smiles.
FOLCS Kindred Gathering participants at the urban farm Three Sisters Gardens in Sacramento, California. Photo by Franklin Ikenna Ikekwere.

After three years in the making, the Food Operators and Leaders of Color in Schools network (FOLCS) had an in-person convening for the first time this summer during the FOLCS Kindred Gathering in Sacramento, California. Before we continue, I would like to highlight that the name Kindred is a nod to the incomparable Octavia E. Butler novel that explores themes of ancestry, belonging, and power—all elements of this network. 

I joined FoodCorps just in time to witness the relaunching of the network back in 2022, which means I also have had the pleasure of seeing it grow in real time. And now, I have the opportunity to take you on a journey with me to learn what it was like to be in such an extraordinary space. 

What is FOLCS?

What is the FOLCS network, you may ask? FOLCS (pronounced like “folks”), or Food Operators and Leaders of Color in Schools, is a community that provides opportunities for AmeriCorps service members, FoodCorps alumni, and school nutrition professionals, as well as those aspiring to careers in this field, to connect around leadership development, mentorship, and networking.

Established in 2020, FOLCS was previously known as the BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Multiracial, and People of Color) School Nutrition Leadership (SNL) Network. After the relaunch in October 2022, FOLCS has gathered over 150 members in less than a year! 

FOLCS was developed in response to the need for staff of color in school nutrition to feel seen, heard, valued, and supported — a step that is essential in promoting equity in schools. This network is our intentional effort to increase diversity in school nutrition, especially among professionals who have decision-making responsibilities, and in turn, best serve all students, families, and school communities.

“I’ve been in school nutrition for almost six years now, and I would’ve loved to have the space that FOLCS is building for BIPOC folks in school nutrition… When I started out, I didn’t see any other BIPOC folks really represented in school nutrition from really any organizations, big or small. And so it was really affirming to see that it could be done and that there were other people that looked like me or thought like me in the school nutrition space, with as much passion for school nutrition as I had.”

Angela Gomez, early FOLCS participant

The FOLCS Kindred Gathering marked a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the FOLCS network. This gathering aimed to create a space where like-minded individuals could come together, share their experiences, collaborate, learn, and lay the foundation for a just and sustainable future in school food—something that had not been done before in school nutrition for BIPOC people.

What was the FOLCS Kindred Gathering?

Participants arrived on Tuesday afternoon for the two-and-a-half-day convening. The first day was all about connection and — you guessed it —  kinship. We had a total of 11 inspiring attendees from all over the country: Massachusetts, California, Texas, Oregon, Georgia, New Jersey, and Arizona. We also had attendees from within FoodCorps staff and one external facilitator. Participants represented all areas of school nutrition, from nutrition directors to farm to school specialists, to FoodCorps’ own school nutrition and food education service members and FoodCorps alumni. 

Morgan McGhee, FoodCorps’ Director of School Nutrition Leadership, leads a discussion on power building with FOLCS participants. Photo by Franklin Ikenna Ikekwere.

We headed to Fixins Soul Kitchen, a Black-owned restaurant, to enjoy a scrumptious dinner and get to know each other. Being in that room that first night was surreal; never in my short life have I had the pleasure to sit and share a meal with people who not only thought and dreamed like me but also looked like me. This sentiment was shared by everyone at the table — but the fun was just about to start.

“The reason we need to be concerned about food operators and leaders of color in school is because it’s reflective of the community that we are. We’re not a nation of just one [homogeneous] ethnic group. We’re made up of lots and lots of people who contribute at very different levels.”

Betti Wiggins, Executive Officer for the Houston Independent School District Nutrition Service Program and FOLCS participant

The following days were facilitated by the very knowledgeable Dr. Eddy Jara (Riverside University Health System) and overall rockstar Morgan McGhee (School Nutrition Leadership Director at FoodCorps). We had the opportunity to learn from the very best about the principles of Liberatory Design and how it was relevant in program implementation back home, as well as develop a vision statement for FOLCS. The Kindred Gathering also served as the space to build momentum and co-create the foundations of the FOLCS Fellowship Program for BIPOC school nutrition leaders. 

I felt a sense of ease, comfort, and safety being among a multi-generational group of school food leaders of color. I didn’t have to filter what I wanted to share and wonder if the other folx in the room would understand and see me. Unspoken power dynamics and unconscious biases were absent in this space. For the first time in my life, I was in a space that allowed for a free flow of ideas, story sharing, and efficiency in getting to the roots of a complex systemic issue that this group of leaders is working to help rebuild.

I would like to share with you the activity we did for self-introductions. Why? Because it made all of us tear up, be vulnerable, and ground ourselves not only in the work we do in school nutrition but also in our humanity. I invite you to try it next time you have a chance; you will learn so much about yourself and those around you. See the picture below:

A template for an introduction activity invites participants to reflect on their history, gifts, and intentions.

What was the impact of the FOLCS Kindred Gathering?

The significance of the FOLCS Kindred Gathering cannot be overstated. It was not just a gathering event; it was a celebration of diversity, empowerment, and unity within the school nutrition community. The FOLCS Kindred Gathering provided a platform for voices that often go unheard, allowing participants to harness their collective wisdom and experiences to drive meaningful change.

“FOLCS has brought me out of my shell. It showed me that there are people around the United States that are doing the same level of work that I’m doing. FOLCS is helping me to understand that I’m not alone and that we’re all in this together.”

Arlethia Brown, Director of School Nutrition at Camden City School District and FOLCS participant

This momentum is behind the upcoming FOLCS Fellowship Program as well. The idea behind the FOLCS Fellowship is to create a multi-level pipeline of school nutrition leaders that advance nourishing school meals through professional development, mentorship, and in-depth and equity-centered support. Food is more than fuel to the body, and that applies to school food as well. Food is culture, food is connection, and food is identity. Working towards free meals for all is one part of the puzzle.

Now, we must work toward serving foods that represent and reflect the vast diversity of our students in this country. We can work toward that goal by supporting and building up leaders of color who have direct connections to cultural foods, and ultimately validate the food experiences of not only students but the community as a whole. The FOLCS Fellowship will be launched in 2024. 

FOLCS participants gather for a discussion at Three Sisters Gardens urban farm in Sacramento, California. Photo by Franklin Ikenna Ikekwere.

The FOLCS Kindred Gathering was a resounding success, leaving participants inspired, motivated, and ready to effect change in their communities. As the momentum continues to build, you can also be part of this transformative movement. We invite you to join FOLCS to stay updated on the FOLCS Fellowship and become a mover and a shaker in shaping the future of school nutrition!

We want to give a special thank-you to the Three Sisters Gardens Founder, Alfred Melbourne, for allowing us to have a farm tour and share with the group their passion, their fire, and the inspiration to continue doing the work we are all doing.

Ale Peñaloza is FoodCorps’ School Nutrition Leadership Manager.