I have witnessed something pretty awesome recently: an increase in social activism among tweens and teens since the 2016 election. Kids are marching for science, posting about issues on social media (often more respectfully than the adults in their lives) and hosting meetups to keep the conversations going. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, kids’ finding their voices about issues that matter to them is a splendid thing.
According to a recent article in Psychology Today, “activism is transformative because . . . humans want to feel useful and important.” It allows kids to “connect the dots between the problems they see and the solutions they envision.”
It’s unquestionable that kids can make a difference. Sarah Holway, education director at food-advocacy organization DC Greens, says kids can have a big impact when they testify at city council hearings, such as the school-food hearings held by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education. Consumers can shape the actions of big food companies, too. For instance, Kellogg’s has responded to complaints and changing consumer habits by promising to remove all artificial colors and flavors from its products, such as Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, by 2018. That’s progress.
My children might not share my passion for nutrition, food access and the future of our food supply, and that’s okay. They should follow their own curiosities. For children who are enthusiastic about nutrition and food, I have created a guide to food activism.
Remember that our food system is much more than what is for dinner tonight. Food issues include access for impoverished communities, water and air pollution, the future of family farms, legislation and food subsidies, GMOs, pesticide use, food labeling, chronic illness prevention, and child labor in agriculture.
Here are some facts that may pique your kids’ interest:
- Food insecurity: One out of every 5 children in the United States lives in a household without enough food. Kids who eat regularly, especially those who eat breakfast, have higher test scores.
- Food waste: Almost 1 billion people in the world are going hungry (13.1 million children in the United States alone) while a third of the world’s food produced for human consumption is wasted. The largest category of waste in U.S. landfills is food, accounting for 21 percent of waste.
- Preventable illnesses: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “chronic diseases and conditions — such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis — are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems.” Most can be averted with good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
- Federal food and farm bills make many fruits and vegetables expensive to grow while subsidizing foods such as corn and soy that are processed and put into our food system at alarming and unhealthy rates.
- Child labor: About 70 percent of child laborers in the United States work in agriculture, and children working in agriculture are excluded from many labor protections by federal labor laws. The work is grueling and often done in extreme conditions, including bad weather, with dan gerous machines around and an excess of pesticides.
Take Action: 12 ways kids can make a difference
1. Start at school. DC Greens and the Farm-to-School Network can help you get your cafeteria to serve local foods, invite a chef into your classroom, plant a school garden, provide signage for your cafeteria and information for school newsletters, and plan a field trip to a farm or community kitchen. The educators at DC Greens suggest you write notes to your school’s food-service staff members to thank them for their hard work and to let them know your favorite lunch items.
2. Screen a film about food, either at your house or school. Film ideas include “Fed Up,” “Food, Inc.,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Super Size Me” or “The Harvest/La Cosecha.” National Food Day is Oct. 24, so it could be an ideal event date.
3. Initiate a social-media campaign to educate and motivate your friends. Follow thought leaders in the field and re-post the work they are doing. Rally your friends to spread the word, and sign and forward petitions that support your beliefs. The Environmental Working Group, Food Policy Action and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have many timely ideas. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s website offers a social-media kit, among other tools.
4. Choose a science fair project that teaches your classmates about the food system. Ideas include discovering the best soil to grow the most nutritious vegetables, how garlic fights bacteria or how sodas affect meat.
5. Plant a garden in your back yard, in a window, on a deck, at your school or in your community. It can be as small as a basil plant or large enough to contribute to a school cafeteria. DC Greens offers resources and support, including a school garden market program.
6. Volunteer for a local organization that is doing the work you believe in. Did you know that D.C. Public Schools’ food advisory board has slots for students? In this role, you can give feedback to food-service providers. Local chapters of organizations such as Slow Food USA or even your favorite farmers market might be ideal places for a summer internship. Food+Tech Connect merges food with technology and innovation, and DC Greens offers volunteer opportunities.
7. Vote with your fork by choosing foods that support your beliefs. Buy foods that are local, less processed, organic or meatless, go to farmers markets, eat more fruits and vegetables, and bring healthier snacks to your sporting events.
8. Limit waste. Buy products with less packaging, eat leftovers and compost.
9. Cook. Create a cooking club with your friends or cook dinner for your family. Sign up to get monthly meal kits from Raddish that include recipes, a culinary lesson and a creative project. Or pull out old family recipes and invite your grandmother into the kitchen with you.
10. Write a letter to your school or newspaper about a food issue.
11. Collect cans for a food bank or raise money for a nonprofit that reflects your beliefs.
As former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman (R) once said, “anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never tried to fall asleep with a mosquito in the room.” Kids, don’t underestimate yourselves.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, May 11, 2017.