A food fight that could have been so much more

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 5, 2013

They put away their smartphones. Then the digital natives who grew up talking, flirting, working and playing online snapped goggles onto their faces and dove into a massive food fight in a Frederick field.

Several hundred people, nearly all of them in their 20s and early 30s, paid about $40 a head to throw a few tons of ripe tomatoes at one another in an event organizers dubbed the Tomato Bash.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

It was fun and squishy and gross and slimy and totally tactile. It was real, not virtual. And maybe that’s part of the draw when it comes to the millennial crowd that dominated the gazpacho slop.

“I’m turning 30 this year, and it was on my Turning 30 list!” declared Tessa Barth, who is from Ellicott City and works as an environmental risk assessor.

No risk in the mountain of inedible tomatoes, she ruled.

Smashers threw tomatoes at each other, slipped in a red tide of lycopene, slid across the tarps, screamed primal, tomatoey screams. It looked like the kind of thing Congress should do before the next session, to get a lot of bickering out of the way so actual work can get done.

“This one was, like, 10 times better than the one in Spain!” said Sherene Rance, 30, a construction consultant who lives in Brooklyn.

The drive from New York wasn’t that far, given that she went to the Spanish town of Bunol three years ago specifically to dive into the original bash, La Tomatina.

When they aren’t buried in their cellphones, the millennials are adventurers. So it’s no wonder Groupon and Living Social and the event planners who work with them are making money offering real life, high-adrenaline adventures to the digital generation.

They organize kickball and bocce leagues, offer hot-air ballooning and have elevated weekend fun runs to muddy, paint-splattered extravaganzas.

The Tomato Bash was the perfect mix of thrill and preschool nostalgia. Like that highchair bowl of spaghetti and sauce on your head, all over again. Plus you get to drink beer afterward.

The quietly interesting thing about the event, though, was that a tiny portion of the ticket price was going to the Susan G. Komen organization, the pink-ribbon breast cancer people.

“For real? For breast cancer?” asked Steve White, spitting tomato seeds off his lips and wiping his head.

White, 30, is an Army veteran who works at Arlington National Cemetery. I talked to nurses, teachers, contractors, a nuclear scientist, consultants and managers and none of them came to this event specifically because it was a fundraiser.

This was all about weekend fun.

Meanwhile, the solemn, emotional pink-ribbon races for the cure that became so popular in the 1990s are dying off. In fact, Komen killed seven of its 14 three-day run/walks this year, including in the District.

Christine Tucker, 47, remembers those events. She participated in a few of them.

And she was the only person I found who dove into the tomato pit Saturday because of the Komen connection.

“My mother is a breast cancer survivor,” said the special-education teacher from Martinsburg, W.Va.

Tucker, like thousands of other women across the country, cut her ties to Komen last year after it yanked funding for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood to protest the abortion services the clinics offer.

“I was so [angry] at them for that,” she said. “I thought they hurt themselves with that.”

It did hurt.

But then this event showed up, quietly advertised on Komen’s Maryland Web site.

I wondered whether the bash was Komen’s new outreach strategy for the younger generation. It’s the perfect breast cancer event. Everyone turns pink, the many shapes and sizes of tomatoes are breasty, and it’s a lot of fun.

That would be brilliant. But Komen didn’t come up with the idea.

“No, they approached us, as groups frequently do that want help,” explained an organization spokeswoman, Kiki Ryan.

If Komen were savvier, though, it would be holding tomato bashes all over the country to appeal to a different demographic group.

Millennials, in general, are huge givers.

Even though many of them are saddled with student loans and struggling to launch in a bum economy, 83 percent of millennials made a financial contribution to a nonprofit organization last year, according to the Millennial Impact Research report issued by Achieve, a company that helps direct fundraising for charitable causes.

At a conference last month on how charities can tap into this demographic, one of the biggest conclusions was that millennials focus more on causes than organizations. So throwing tomatoes for the tatas, rather than helping to pay the high salaries at Komen, would have worked well. If only they had billed it that way.

But charities aren’t speaking the millennial language very well. And this goes beyond social media and online awkwardness, which the report also cited.

Most of the events that sate the millennial thirst for adventure are run by event planners. Some hook up with local charities, but only a drop in the bucket usually goes to a cause. (Komen got just 50 cents from every Tomato Bash ticket).

Until charities such as Komen wake up and see where the next generation of givers is going and what it loves doing, they’re just going to keep running in circles.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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