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America's Youth And The Future Of Food

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David Schwartz, founder of Real Food Challenge, is one of five finalists vying for DoSomething.org's $100,000 grant prize. The organization will announce the winner on VH1 on Thursday.

Our generation has a choice to make.

We could be known as the first generation in our nation's history to live shorter lives than our parents, thanks to the food that we're eating. (That's what the federal Center for Disease Control is predicting.)

Or, we could be known as the generation that led a revolution in the way America eats and defines "real food."

Clues about which way we'll go are all around us: new, youth-powered community farms popping up in urban centers, students protesting industrial food on college campuses.... From the hood to the heartland, young people are fed up with the options they've been given and are taking their food future into their own hands.

I get to work with many of these inspiring young leaders as the Campaign Director and co-founder of the Real Food Challenge -- a national network of student activists, working to change the business of food. Since 2008, the Real Food Challenge has trained over 3,000 student leaders and gotten our schools to collectively shift $34 million of their existing food spending to healthy, locally-grown, ecologically sound, fair and humane alternatives -- what we call "real food."

Like many of this generation, my path to becoming a "food movement" activist was anything but obvious.

Growing up in inner-city Boston, I could see McDonald's golden arches from my school's playground. My mom dropped out of college and my dad had been working in factories -- they were about as far from farmers or 'foodies' as you could get. Still, my mom's little garden, surrounded by chain link and concrete on our tree-less city street, always felt like a special spot for me and I think I carried that with me.

Playing kickball at recess we'd trade horror stories about the cafeteria food: the mystery meat sloppy Joes oozing with orange grease, the crusty old pizza we were eating for the third time this week.... But with no grocery stores within walking distance, when we did ditch lunch and scrounge up a dollar or two, our only option was to hit up that McDonald's after school.

The fact is, this is the story for too many children. One in three kids in America is obese (it's one in two if you're African-American or Latino, like most of my classmates). Diabetes rates amongst youth are also growing at an alarming rate.

It's just crazy to think that that food -- the very thing that's supposed to make us healthy and happy and connect us to our cultures -- is the very thing that's killing us.

In just a few short years, diet-related diseases are predicted to cost our country $300 billion, annually. And no wonder--the food we have available is highly processed, filled with chemicals and shipped from thousands of miles away to our plate.

Like most kids, however, I had never heard these statistics.

It wasn't until just before high school, when my family picked up and moved to a more affluent area, that the reality hit me. Just 20 minutes away from my old home, and yet here there were tree-lined streets, big houses, and way more food options.

The school lunches still consisted of greasy french fries but at least here I could reach a Whole Foods, a Stop & Shop and a bustling farmer's market in just 5-10 minutes.

It made me angry to think that access to real food wasn't available to everyone and that in schools it wasn't available to anybody!

I decided that I needed to do something. But I wasn't sure exactly what. I tried all sorts of things: kicking my fast food habits, working in soup kitchens, starting a community garden and even training to become a farmer myself! (My parents were getting worried at this point.)

Then it hit me: why couldn't school food -- the bane of my childhood existence -- be a tool for positive social change?

I started the Real Food Challenge with an incredible group of young leaders to make that vision a reality. Together we're harnessing the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, just and sustainable food system.

Instead of spending money on fast food and factory farms, we're getting our schools -- who spend $5 billion on food every year! -- to invest that money in healthy community-based food businesses, fair trade products, and eco-alternatives. At the same time, we're educating a new generation of leaders -- our future CEOs, teachers, legislators and parents -- about where their food really comes from and how they can take action as engaged citizens.

The results have been powerful. In just a few short years we've reached over 35,000 young people through our campaigns. At our Regional Summits and intensive Leadership Institutes, we've trained over 3,000 student leaders. When they come to a Real Food Challenge event, they realize that they're not alone in this struggle. They see that together we are a vibrant and growing movement!

The real impact is about not only of what's on our cafeteria trays, but also what's in the pockets of the small farmers and food companies we are supporting. When students and staff at UC-Santa Cruz reached out to beginning immigrant farmer Hector Mora, they not only got fresh, local vegetables in their cafeteria, but Hector's sales doubled in just one year. When students at Brown University got the school to buy local apples from Hill Orchards, Alan Hill found much-needed economic security, and began selling not only to the college but also to two local public school districts.

It's true that young people, when we act together, really can make lasting institutional change.

Having had successes at schools as diverse as the University of California, Iowa Sate, Cabrillo Community College and Brown University, we're now ready to take our work to the next level.

With a $100,000 Do Something Award, we would launch these two projects:

  1. Our GET REAL! Campaign: We're now working to get every college and university president in the country to sign a Real Food Campus Commitment--ensuring that they prioritize healthy, fair and green food on their campus and commit to supporting local businesses and farmers.
  2. LiveRealNow.org: We're launching an exciting social media site for teens. Sign up to make a commitment to action -- anything from quitting fast food for a week to composting food waste at home. Then get your friends to join you! We'll add up the totals so you can see your movement grow. There'll always be more challenging and creative commitments for you to make.

With all this activity, it's hard not to be inspired. More and more youth are making the choice to take action, join the movement and GET REAL! While the statistics may be against us for now, I've never been more hopeful.

Sign up today @ www.realfoodchallenge.org

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