“Haile always makes me feel like I wasn’t doing enough in high school.”

Danielle Nierenberg, the moderator for the panel on the next generation of food leaders here at SXSW, may have been the one to make the joke, but no doubt everyone in the room was feeling the same way after hearing Haile Thomas’s story. Thomas founded her non-profit, HAPPY, when she was 12 years old after seeing her father eliminate his type 2 diabetes through healthy eating. Now 18, Thomas continues to blaze a trail, offering plant-based nutrition and culinary education in at-risk communities. She was merely the youngest of the impressive group of panelists, all working to inspire children and students to think differently about food.

Tony Hillery heads up Harlem Grown, a thriving urban farm that distributes food to local families. And Regina Anderson, through her work as the executive director at the Food Recovery Network, ensures that excess food is recovered from higher education food service locations and served to those most in need in their communities. (The Food Recovery Network partners with Compass on its food waste reduction efforts.) The panel provided fascinating insight into a wide range of food-related issues.

On the struggle to get more young people to consider farming, Thomas offered: “Part of the solution is that we must do a better job of marketing [this work]. Farming makes an incredible impact on our communities and if we position it that way, I think it will have much more meaning and appeal to my generation.” Thomas also delved into some of the sensitivity involved in changing diets that are strongly rooted in cultural and social practices. “You need to be careful about going into a community and telling them they ought to be drinking smoothies and eating kale. Humility is extremely important because while we’re talking to them about food, food is really about so much more.”

Food as an instrument for social change was a recurring theme throughout the hour-long discussion. Anderson referenced the work of the many students who volunteer for the Food Recovery Network, and how the connections they make through the food redeployment process can help break down stereotypes and barriers. And Hillery drove the point home toward the session’s close, providing a powerful illustration of how the simple act of growing food in an underprivileged community can transform lives. “Many of these kids lack stability at home. Some have lived at 8 different addresses in 10 years. If you tell them to become a doctor or a lawyer, you might as well be telling them to become Batman or Superman. This urban farm is the one constant in their lives and our goal is to use it to disrupt the cycle of poverty.”

The panelists’ message was clear: by instilling values and strengthening communities, food can absolutely be a force for positive change—as long as, in Hillery’s words, “we all take the time to put in the work.”

SXSW 2019
Panel: Cultivating The Next Generation of Food Leaders
March 13, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Danielle Nierenberg – Food Tank, The Think Tank for Food
Tony Hillery – Harlem Grown
Haile Thomas – HAPPY (Health Active Positive Purposeful Youth)
Regina Anderson – Food Recovery Network

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