The Impact of Community and Lived Experience

This month, Rise and Shine IL had the opportunity to talk with Tyler Stratton, the Associate Director of Youth Programs at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, about how her life experiences impacted how she approaches her work. Tyler was born and raised on the south side of Chicago but spent much of her time growing up experiencing many different communities throughout Cook County. Through her participation in the National School Lunch Program and her constant movement throughout different areas of Chicago to reach her extracurricular activities, Tyler was exposed to diverse communities and people from all walks of life at an early age. This exposure caused her to question why there is such a difference in how people live, the resources people have access to, and why communities are supported so differently.

Tyler participated in the National School Lunch Program from elementary school to high school. Every day, she and her classmates would line up during lunch time and they would all go through the meal line to receive free or reduced rate meals. She stated, “Thinking about it now, school nutrition was so normal as kids. Eating school meals was just something everyone did and getting lunch was a daily routine.” She explained that, although she often ate school meals, she was not food insecure. But she did recognize that some of her classmates were. Stratton did not fully have the language to describe the differences she observed during school, but she recognized everyone’s lived experience looked different, which later led her back to community service and outreach. Stratton also reflected on the many memorable experiences she had with the nutrition staff that worked the meal line. Through daily connection, Tyler developed strong relationships with the cafeteria staff in all the schools she attended; she described the genuine interest the nutrition staff had in her well-being and how supportive they were of her and her endeavors. She even has graduation pictures with some of them!

As she continued her education, Tyler developed the perspective and language she needed to understand why everyone lives differently, and why people experience hunger and food insecurity. She stated: “These are systemic issues we’re dealing with, and many of the challenges we see in communities are intertwined. They can’t be addressed as individual issues, so it is going to take a number of things to close these gaps.” After years attending both public and private schools and witnessing some of Chicago’s most resourced and under-resourced communities, Tyler started asking herself what her role would be in closing some of those gaps. Growing up around people from all walks of life emphasized her desire to be a part of what it looks like to break down barriers, increase food access, move with empathy and center equity.

In her current role at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Tyler has been able to lean on her own experience with meal service staff, and views work related to food access and quality through a lens that connects to school nutrition. These experiences and interactions gave her a better understanding of how important school nutrition professionals are to people’s ability to survive and thrive, especially our youth.

As we closed the interview, Tyler brought up an African Proverb that her mother always says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Work involving nutrition and food security is true to this proverb. None of this can be done alone. Tyler explained that it takes teachers, nutrition staff, and community partners to come together in a holistic way that supports and centers young people, their needs, and their interests. This is necessary to ensure our youth have what they need to be their full and whole selves and continue to grow and develop. “Throughout my career thus far, youth have been at the center of my line of work. I love working with young people and for young people. When you think of what they need to thrive and grow, food is one piece to a larger puzzle”. Tyler is grateful that she has the opportunity to support young people every day. We are grateful for her as well!