“From a really young age I loved food,” recalls Liam Spady, a recent graduate of Community College of Philadelphia who received his associate degree in Culinary Arts. “I loved cooking, which is what I did because in school, I got kind of bullied. I was always into books... I didn't do what the other guys did. So, I went into the kitchen.”
Although Liam found respite in cooking at a young age, his passion for food eventually led him to discover some troubling inequities in food access throughout our city. He explained, “I had the privilege of going to a school in South Philly. So, I would leave West Philly and go all the way down there each morning and just go into some of the stores around there. The options were different. I kind of got used to eating that way. When I would come home, I was like, ‘Oh, where's everything at?’”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Liam would eventually learn that what he was experiencing was a food desert. This motivated Liam to approach his career in food from a different point of view.
Liam plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the fall, majoring in Public Health at Temple University. “I want to study the education side of things, like how people get educated about what foods are healthy”, he said. “But also, I want to be in a management/administration role, setting what those guidelines are and working with nutritionists on mandating what is served in schools and in different places around the city.”
Liam is no stranger to policy creation in Philadelphia. After entering the city’s foster care system at 16 and experiencing further housing instability after he aged out of the system, Liam wanted to know how he could help improve the institutions that help support housing and food insecure youth. Since 2016 Liam has been a member of the Youth Action Board for Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services.
“It was some time ago I was a client at CBH (Community Behavioral Health) because I experienced a couple different things while I was in foster care,” said Liam. “So, I started looking for ways to try to improve the system because my experience was so bad.” The group started meeting as a temporary initiative called the Hundred Day Challenge and transformed into the Youth Action Board at the Office of Homeless Services over a three-year period.
“Doing work around youth homelessness, mental health and resource access and a little bit of national work with youth Collaboratory on the same topics,” Liam has chaired the Youth Action Board for the last two years. The purpose of the Youth Action Board is to connect with housing and food insecure youth around the city and convey their issues to city departments that can enact the change that those groups need.
Liam has been able to advocate for the needs of housing and food insecure students at Community College of Philadelphia as well by working with the Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership. “Michelle [Lopez] and David [Ascencio] came to me and a couple of other young people and got a small group together. We sat in her office for hours and just planned and planned and talk about our needs,” said Liam. Out of these conversations came multiple educational events aimed at teaching College staff and faculty how to better serve students who have been in or are in foster care. The advocacy of Liam and his peers that led to these events has helped to inform future initiatives and improvements in the College’s Fostering Caring Connections program as well.
Tackling issues at a city-wide level, Liam has been able to help enact significant changes through the Youth Action Board. Liam and his peers on the board identified that there was a lack of attention toward specialized resources for young adults ages 18-24 who are at risk of homelessness. Previously, when homeless youth were evaluated by the city to receive housing, they were prioritized based on how long they had been homeless and were often placed at the very end of a long list. “You would be last on that list because you've been homeless X amount of days compared to [adults] who might be chronically homeless. We just found that to be unfair because you would never get housing.” By connecting with Councilwoman Helen Gym, the Youth Action Board was able to secure additional funds to be allocated specifically for youth housing. They were also able to change the cutoff age for youth housing from 21 to 24.
But like most systemic issues, the work of providing resources for housing insecure youth is nowhere near done. “There's no youth-specific shelter for young people,” said Liam, “so young people don't feel safe going into the shelter system. And because of that, they don't get services and it causes them to leave school or drop out. A lot of members on our Youth Action Board actually were college students who couldn't attain housing and they dropped out.” Compounding this issue, many housing insecure youths have a difficult time supporting themselves because there are very few opportunities for them to get paid a living wage without a degree.
Although Liam was able to overcome nearly insurmountable challenges to complete his associate degree, he has far too many peers who, not for lack of trying, were unable to have that same opportunity. Balancing his studies with a full-time work schedule and housing insecurity, those peers are what kept him going. “To see so many other young people not achieve [their degree] because of these stupid barriers that I felt were so easy to fix, but no one was doing it, that was the initial drive,” said Liam. “And then the second thing is just [my] love for learning and education. I just love to know more to be more and to do more”. Having lived in west Philadelphia most of his life, Liam looks forward to using his education to help create prosperity within the community in which he grew up. “I would go into nice buildings [around other parts of the city] and I'm like, wow, this is great...to transform west Philly into that [is] another big push,” he said. “I think those things kind of got me through it.”