Ten Teens Rocking the Food Revolution Scene

by Sarah Henry on July 7, 2010 · 42 comments

in food films,food politics,kids & food,school food

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.]

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

MarthaAndMe July 7, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Kudos to these kids! My daughter is 18 and does not eat junk at all and has a highly developed palate. There is definitely hope for the future.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Good to gather more anecdotal evidence that some adolescents eschew junk food.

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Alexandra July 7, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Cool post! Thanks for introducing your readers to these awesome teens.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Pleasure, Alexander. And I look forward to learning about many more.

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sheryl July 7, 2010 at 5:22 pm

So impressive. These teens have a big future ahead of them, I think! Good for them for taking the initiative to do something about what they put into their bodies. Now is the time to learn good habits.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Well said, Sheryl.

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Claudine Jalajas July 7, 2010 at 6:45 pm

So incredible. I’m always amazed with teens that do something, anything, other than just moping around and being surly. The fact that they’re doing what they’re doing with food is also so great.

I cook for my family on a regular basis. I try to only serve healthy but we do have some down days. I grew up with good food. And my kids know good food. So hopefully it’s just a way of life.

Great post!

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2010 at 8:05 pm

You’re funny, Claudine, moping and surly teens are certainly out there. And I think your point that most of the time your family eats well and the kids know what good food looks like is a great way to get them started on a lifetime habit of healthy eating.

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Frugal Kiwi July 7, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Great post. Lovely to have someone focus on the positive things that teens can do instead of vilifying them. Well done.

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Sarah Henry July 7, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Thanks. Here’s hoping that as I head into the teen years on a personal level that I can remain this chipper most of the time.

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Billy July 8, 2010 at 6:06 am

Thank you very much for sharing these stories! We continue to be inspired by the leadership we see every day!

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 7:37 am

Thanks for chiming in, Billy. Nice to see you here.

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Jesaka Long July 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours, Sarah. This is amazing! Thank you for shining the spotlight on these teens. You’ve given me role models that I can share with my niece as she enters high school. She loves to cook (and loves, loves, loves lemons) so many she’ll find inspiration here. Thank you!

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 7:36 am

Pleasure, Jesaka. Your niece sounds cool.

Since you mentioned she’s a lemon lover, might I suggest that you show her this post about The Lemon Lady, another inspiring fresh food advocate:

http://lettuceeatkale.com/2009/the-lemon-lady-feeding-the-hungry-one-bag-of-produce-at-a-time/

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Jane Gookin July 8, 2010 at 7:56 am

Check out what’s happening in Baltimore at: greatkidsfarm.org

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 8:10 am

Will do. And thanks for the tip, Jane.

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Dania July 8, 2010 at 8:50 am

Very cool blog. Inspiring. Here on Maui we do Taste Education. We take locally grown produce and value added products and compare them to the same brought in from the mainland. Would you rather eat a tomato that traveled over 3,000 miles and cost more than a tomato picked next door and cost half the price?

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 8:59 am

Thanks, Dania. Speaking of cool: Love the sound of that taste testing program in Maui. Brilliant idea.

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Cheryl July 8, 2010 at 9:42 am

Hope springs eternal! As the proud parent of a soon-to-be-middle-schooler myself, I can assure you that this generation’s interest in food and food issues far surpasses that of prior generations. Sure, the vast majority of kids, of people, are still concerned with more trivial matters, but I do feel like the future of food is in good hands. Your post has taken my hope and multiplied it.

Also, I remember listening to the Rethinkers from N.O. at a conference last year. Those are some dedicated kids!

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 10:04 am

“The future of food is in good hands.” I like that sentiment — a lot. Well said, Cheryl.

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Jennifer Margulis July 8, 2010 at 10:04 am

These stories are so inspiring. Maybe you need to write a book about these teens or about teens changing the food world?! Seems so timely and so important.

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 10:04 am

Now there’s an idea, Jennifer.

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Ruth Pennebaker July 8, 2010 at 10:43 am

Wonderful post, Sarah. I find most people who are gloomy about the younger generation really don’t *know* that many kids.

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 11:26 am

What a wise comment, Ruth, and you’re quite likely onto something there.

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alisa bowman July 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm

So proud of all of these kids.

I did have to comment about root beer. It’s a vegetable, right? (Get it? “Root”. Just kidding).

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Oh, you’re a funny one, Alisa. Jokes aside, I have just never developed a taste for that soda, too medicinal for my tastes. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. What say all you Americans who grew up on root beer floats?

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Meredith July 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

What a terrific post! I think these kids are doing amazing things. I’m a fan. When the mind is open to change…anything (wonderful) can happen.

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Sarah Henry July 8, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Good point, Meredith. What all these kids have in common is that they’re open to new ideas and willing to try something different. Now, if more of us adults were like that…

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Margaret July 9, 2010 at 5:24 am

Inspiring! These kids are truly thinking globally and acting (eating) locally!

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 8:32 am

Yes, exactly, Margaret. And yet they’re also pretty matter-of-fact about what they do.

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Susan July 12, 2010 at 6:45 am

I second Jennifer’s suggestion to turn this into a book. I love reading about young people doing interesting things to improve their communities and the world.

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Thanks for the encouragement, Susan. Seems like stories about teens are popular with a lot of people. Who knew?

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Mark August 11, 2010 at 8:31 am

I just came across this post. Thanks for the call out for our Cooking up Change program, but let’s not forget our National Champions from this past spring: http://bit.ly/cTwEF7 .

And our next competition is going to be even better in the fall! We’ll let you know what happens on November 4th when we crown the next high school team!

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Laxmi Hiremath August 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I watched the documentary film Food Inc and was thinking hopefully someone will start the food revolution. As I was surfing I came across your site and lovely teen stories! It is so nice to see our youngsters taking the lead. My very best wishes to the teens you have mentioned here.

Recently, I taught at the Sprouts Cooking Club in Berkeley, the registered kids in the school were preteens. They were pretty well versed in cooking, they even knew how to chiffonade the herbs. I believe our teenagers will do an honest job at revolutionizing how we eat.

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