In images, our food is often celebrated one-dimensionally.
Food photographs tend to show a glamorized version of the "dirty work" behind the scenes: a chef in a moment of glory, wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of one hand while holding a charred piece of meat over an open flame with the other. A smiling farmer in overalls plucking ruby-red tomatoes off a vine, the jeweled rewards of her hard work. Her summer bounty, and ours.
Twenty-year-old Terrence Smith has photos like this, too. In one, his hands are wrist-deep in buckets of dark soil crawling with thick, slinky worms. The compost is so rich that Smith calls it—and his vermicomposting business, which he started at age sixteen—Super Dirt. But some of the photos Smith will show at The Carrack Modern Art next month are the sort that a fancy food magazine would leave on the cutting-room floor.
The exhibit, Reframing Food, runs for two weeks next month, with an opening reception on October 15 and a closing reception on October 21. It showcases photography by members of the Food Youth Initiative, a network of four groups across the state working toward food justice in their communities. Their work intimately portrays a powerful personal perspective uncommon in the mainstream food world.
"In our sort of ageist society, the youth are geniuses," says Bevelyn Ukah, who coordinates FYI through the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State. "These youth in particular represent the vast experiences within the food system."
FYI includes ethnic Karen refugee youth from Burma at Transplanting Traditions Community Farm in Chapel Hill; the Lenoir County migrant farmworker youth of Poder Juvenil Campesino (Rural Youth Power); the young beekeepers of Conetoe Family Life Center in Edgecombe County; and GrowingChange, a group of young men in Scotland County who have all experienced the juvenile justice system.
Smith joined GrowingChange at sixteen. The group is currently working on converting a former prison, the dilapidated Scotland Correctional Institution, into a community garden.
"There ain't a whole lot going on in Gibson," Smith says of his tiny hometown, population 540. He is now the oldest and a mentor within what he calls a newfound brotherhood. "Gardening is a tool of therapy with troubled youth in general, and our [prison] project will have a positive effect on their lives."
For the exhibit, Smith and his cohort chose to take photographs of the prison they are converting. It's not the glossy picture of the food world we're used to, but it does reflect the path of these young men, with food as their solution to a better future.
Durham-based photographer Peter Eversoll has spent several years leading photo-graphy workshops with youth groups. Their work explores nuanced storytelling along with basic techniques, from catching the most delicious light to waiting for the action shot. Above all, it expresses the youths' desire to use their photography as advocacy.
"We've talked about how photographs bear witness to history and have played a key role in social change over the last 150 years," says Eversoll. "Think Lewis Hine and child labor, Emmett Till and civil rights, to more recent events around police brutality and international conflicts. The primary thing is to get folks thinking beyond the selfie and the snapshot—not that there is anything wrong with them. But we want to be more intentional about how we create images and what purpose they might serve."
Smith says that GrowingChange members think a lot about the symbolism of their work. "The prison once was a tool of justice," he says. "Now we're using it to correct the flaws of the system."
As the FYI youth at once live and document their own lives, they are finding commonalities in their differences.
"You get to meet people with other ideas that make you think about stuff a whole other way," says Smith, noting he never thought he'd meet and become friends with a migrant farmworker or a refugee from another country. "FYI lets you know what people are doing outside of your city, your county, your area."
"As much as the photos tell you that the youth are aware and awake, they also show you possibility and potential," says Eversoll. "This prison will be flipped, this garden will be bountiful, these youth will move onward and upward, children will be playing in fields instead of working in them. They give us the possibilities for change, in their terms, through their eyes."
Terra Vita Food & Drink Festival and the Carolina Food Summit (Sept. 28–Oct. 1, various venues, Chapel Hill, www.terravitafest.com/www.carolinafoodsummit.com) While local foodie culture can be a bit noisy, there are spaces where we can escape to listen for sustenance. Colleen Minton started Terra Vita in 2010 to infuse the idea of sustainability with Carolina terroir. The event has quickly grown into a full-fledged festival where participants hop around town, from lavish dinners to after-parties hosted by celebrity chefs. And, beyond the glitz, this year's sustainable classroom series partners with the inaugural Carolina Food Summit, a symposium on everything from organic agriculture to racial and gendered politics in food. Tickets vary in price; a two-day Carolina Food Summit pass costs $125 but is also available at a need-based discounted rate. —Victoria Bouloubasis
N.C. Barbecue Revival (Oct. 28–30, Green Button Farm, 9623 North Roxboro Road, Bahama, www.ncbbqrevival.com) Get sanctified in wood fire and smoke at the inaugural N.C. Barbecue Revival, a three-day celebration of the beloved whole-hog tradition. Hosted on the grounds of Green Button Farm by the guys who brought you the restaurant Picnic, this event gathers the highest order of the barbecue brotherhood to preside over the pits: Sam Jones of Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ, Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue, Bryan Furman of B's Cracklin Barbecue, Wyatt Dickson of Picnic, Tyson Ho of Arrogant Swine, and John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue. Rub hog-greased elbows with barbecue luminaries, learn the art of whole-hog butchery, and dine on Carolina's finest swine all weekend long. Meal and event tickets range from $25 to $250. —Keia Mastrianni
This article appeared in print with the headline "Not Your Average Foodies"