05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kids Will Eat Anything. Where Are the Adults?

I almost couldn't believe the full-page ad in the NY Times last week
(3/9/10 page A7). All the conflict and strife in the world and there they
were--three former competitors--happily posing together with big smiles on
their face.

It was so nice to see Pepsi, Coke and Dr. Pepper playing nice, and in the
schoolyard no less! There they were: three happy delivery folk, trim and
smiling, representing multiple races and genders, standing in front of a
school, shoulder to shoulder, their hand trucks loaded down with diet soda
drinks, water in plastic bottles, and a few other 'better choices' for our
school children.

Better than what?

That's really the question. The American Beverage Association is spending
thousands of dollars boasting that: "Together, we've reduced beverage
calories in schools by 88%," while parents are simultaneously being told
to "back off" from making decisions on what they can and can't feed their
children in schools. In fact, just last week the New York City Department
of Education enforced a ban on bake sales in city public schools. No
muffins from Mom allowed, but packaged snack foods like chips and Oreos
from Kraft and other corporate sources got the green light. So, PepsiCo
and her friends can fill up the vending machines in our schools, but mom
can't bake a batch of cookies with her son and sell them on a card table
to raise money for trips and art classes.

Hmmm... Who is making all these idiotic nutrition decisions on behalf of our
children? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

I want to know: where have the adults gone? Everyone in America knows by
now that the American snack food diet is destroying the futures of our
kids. Jamie Oliver even has a show on ABC where he's reintroducing fruits
and vegetable to schoolchildren. You'd think we could also find a way to
make that clear liquid that costs almost nothing, water, attractive again
(while also ditching unnecessary plastic packaging it comes in).

Even the chairman of the FCC complained in a recent hearing that we need to change advertising because a child has to watch 10 hours of TV to find
1 truly healthy food ad to every 55 unhealthy food ads. Those of us who
know the truth have a serious obligation to deliver a counter message. I
stay up on the latest nutritional writings, but I don't know a lot of
teens reading this information. Youth get their news and opinions from
TV, popular culture and each other!

Today, Youth Development Agencies are all about "building self confidence
and leadership development," but what good is learning to be a leader if
you don't know what direction to lead your peers in? It is our
obligation, as food and environmental justice advocates, to point our
teens in the right direction.

So here are a few ideas from my own experiences with youth. At the Lower
Eastside Girls Club, a program for low-income teens in New York City, we
like to 'think outside the bottle.' When a girl joins the club she
receives this survival kit: a t-shirt, a USB stick and a stainless steel
water bottle. The t-shirt tells the world she belongs to our community;
the USB stick tells the community that she's working on her education, and
the water bottle lets her family and friends know that she is taking her
health seriously!

As for food, our center is a "no junk food zone." Every girl gets the
message the first time she walks through the door after school clutching a
bag of chips in one hand and a soda in the other. We send her back out to
the street to finish her contraband. But she quickly learns that there is
an alternative snack inside: homemade granola and yogurt, hummus and
crudités, or whole grain muffins and fruit. These snacks are available
all afternoon for free, and even if they are met with resistance at first,
they are always consumed by the end of a class. In fact, we learned years
ago, when we opened a series of smoothie and muffin bars in a few local
high schools under the guise of teaching entrepreneurial and business
skills, that teens (both boys and girls) will happily line up to spend
their afterschool dollars on blended fruits and whole grain muffins if
given the option.

For the past eight years our organization has also run a community farmers
market staffed by teens. In partnership with the New York State Department
of Agriculture's New Farmer Development Program we have been bringing
fresh produce to our food desert (there are miles of housing projects with
nothing but bodegas and fast food joints for blocks).

So, again, where are the adults? That's us folks. Preaching doesn't work.
Kids are into experiential education. So start handing out water bottles,
giving out free healthy snacks to the teens that you know, and hiring
teens to work in your farmers markets.

They'll thank you between mouthfuls!