Conventional wisdom says, and readers who have adolescents seem to support the notion, that teenagers frequently make poor food choices, often as a result of peer pressure.
But does it have to be so? My son will enter middle school this year and while I find it hard to believe he will completely dispense with his healthy eating habits to keep up with the cool crowd, he’s beginning to express his individuality by telling me he’s quite fond of both root beer (yuck) and Coke (gasp).
What’s a parent to do? Chill out, as my preteen would say. In reporting on school food here and on Civil Eats I run into plenty of anecdotal stories about teens who do the right thing on the food front, think school food is cool food, or are determined to make changes that are both nutritious and delicious in their communities.
Today, I want to introduce some of these bright young things to you. Some may be familiar from previous posts. Some come courtesy of two rocking authorities on kids and food, whom I approached for suggestions for this story. Thanks to Ann Cooper (aka The Renegade Lunch Lady) and Susan Rubin (one of the Two Angry Moms) for their picks for this piece. Thanks, as well, to my editor at Civil Eats, Paula Crossfield, whose recent post Kids Radically Changing the Food System reminded me of a couple of teens who deserved to be on this list.
I remain optimistic about this next generation. After graduation in June I took my son and one of his buddies to eat at Gather, a newish local restaurant all about eating locally, seasonally and sustainably. Jack, my son’s pal, has always been an adventurous eater, he happily tucked into a pizza with a cashew topping and a salad with nori and declared it “delicious, clean, and fresh tasting.” Two growing Berkeley boys indoctrinated in the delights of farm-to-table food.
At my kid’s elementary school graduation earlier (yes, they have such things, and no, it wasn’t over the top, but rather tastefully done) each of the kids made a speech about how they were going to make a difference in the world.
My boy vowed to graduate from UC Berkeley with a PhD, join the Yankees as second baseman, and then split his multimillion dollar profits from this short-lived sporting career between finding solutions to global warming (his father is an avid environmentalist) and making sure poor people have access to organic produce (I like to think that’s my influence). Way to make a mama proud.
But all the kids — some 65 or so — have grand plans to save the world. That’s what I love about youth. They’re not yet jaded or burned out. Just look at what the kids below are up to — they’re an impressive bunch of budding food activists.
Oh, and I know, technically there’s more than 10 here, but who’s counting?
1. Lashonda Livingston, Aljibri Reed, Henry Walton, Cari Smith and Jakaia Franklin, Chicago: Check out the food-first five from Tilden Career Community High School who took the Cooking up Change challenge run by the non-profit Healthy Schools Campaign all the way to Capitol Hill. Their efforts are featured in the recently released documentary Lunch Line. The annual cooking contest is designed to bring attention to the need for school food reform. This year’s event also highlights efforts to strengthen the Child Nutrition Act, currently up for reauthorization. Watch a trailer of the school food film here. And take a peek at Eat to a New Beat, a resource for kids wanting to revamp their school lunch menu.
2. Orren Fox Newburyport, Connecticut: This young man is on a mission to educate the world — young and old — about how to raise chickens with compassion. He’s run a Farm Club after school, started a small business selling his eggs, and developed a following in cyberspace, where folks like writer/friend Susan Orlean sing his praises. Read more about the happy chicken (and bee!) boy on his blog Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs.
3. Beebe Sanders, Berkeley: The Berkeley High School student takes the Edible Schoolyard message beyond the classroom. Sanders spoke eloquently at a recent panel on school food reform in Oakland. You can read about it here. She’s also active in Farm Fresh Choice, a program designed to get affordable produce to people in need in the community.
4. Koa Halpern, Denver: After researching the environmental and health impacts of the Golden Arches and other fast food franchises, this thirteen-year-old vegetarian launched his own non-profit, Fast Food Free, whose goal is to get kids to ditch Happy Meals from their diet. Halpern, who attends the virtual school Colorado Connections Academy, says he’s slowly but surely winning over skeptics, including many of his friends.
5. Nina Gonzalez, Fredericksburg area, Virginia: Recent Stafford High School graduate Gonzalez pushed hard for more vegetarian options on the lunch line, and improved the food at her school for everyone. She talked to lunch ladies, the county nutrition director, and organized taste-testings with food supplied by vendors of vegetarian food. The young activist, who works with Physicians Committee for Responsible Nutrition, a D.C.-based group that champions more plant-based choices in school lunch programs, has appeared on “Good Morning America,” spoken before a Senate briefing about the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, and been profiled in The Washington Post.
6. Sadie Hope-Gund and Safiyah Riddle, New York City: Inspiring children and adults alike in their funny and thought-provoking documentary about kids and food policy called What’s On Your Plate? Reviewed on this site right here.
7. Healthy Tara, Illinois : A high school senior’s battle for ingredient transparency in school food. As Healthy Tara sees it, if she can’t get rid of crappy food at school, then she at least wants students to have ingredient information so they can make their own choices. Read her blog about her cafeteria crusade to subtract the additives from school lunch.
8. Amelia Marstaller, Freeport, Maine: Dismayed by the funky food served up at her boarding school dining hall in upstate New York, Marstaller started a campaign to bring more local, organic food into the school kitchen. Unperturbed by restrictions on what the Emma Willard School could purchase locally, Marstaller and her supporters decided to start growing food right on campus. Her experience bringing homegrown fresh fruit and vegetables to the school table and partnering with local farmers is chronicled in the recent release Girls Gone Green by Lynn Hirshfield.
9. The Rethinkers, New Orleans: A group of mostly middle school students engaged in rethinking and rebuilding schools in the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They’ve compiled Twelve Recommendations for Public School Cafeterias (Jamie Oliver must love #1: No more sporks!). Also on the list: buying food from local farmers, preparing regional dishes, and composting waste. Leave it to the kids to come up with commonsense solutions. Watch the rethinkers spread the good word about good food in this engaging video, Real Food Now and on Facebook.
10. Araceli Tlatoa, Los Angeles: This teen of Mexican immigrants is active with the organization South Central Farmers, featured in the award-winning documentary film The Garden, reviewed here. Although the farm was relocated to Buttonwill, California, after a bitter battle with the landowner (the site, once a glorious example of urban homesteading, stands empty and unused) Tlatoa remains involved, selling produce on weekends at farmers’ market booths throughout L.A. Her story is also featured in Girls Gone Green.
Feeling upbeat about what a difference these kids have made in their communities?
Do you know of a young food activist who’s doing good work in your ‘hood? Tell us about him or her below.
[Photo of Chicago Food Five from Lunch Line by Stacey Vaeth, photo Orren Fox, courtesy of Happy Chickens, photo Sadie Hope-Gund and Safiyah Riddle courtesy of Aubin Pictures, photo of The Rethinkers, courtesy of The Rethinkers.]