The event was billed as a “Food Justice Youth Summit.” Hundreds of students from various D.C. public schools had come up with proposals for making healthy foods more affordable. They had plans for improving school kitchens and cafeterias, as well as ideas for expanding community gardens.
And there was a certain urgency to their presentations, the result of critical thinking about a future in peril — their own.
Jaylah Previl, 16, gave a workshop on “conventional farming” techniques, noting that the overuse of pesticides, antibiotics, radiation and growth hormones amounted to a poisoning of the food chain. Jaylah laid out the choices that her peers faced: They could continue to feed on that toxic chain, risking illness and premature deaths.
Or they could break the chain, learn healthier habits and eat to live.
“Conventional farming does produce a lot of food and a lot of jobs, but at what cost?” Jaylah asked. “It also produces a lot of food-related illnesses and lots of greenhouse gases, and that contributes to global warming.”
She put on a slide show of animal cages and pens packed with chickens, cows and pigs.
“I’ll give you a moment to look at that, then put your hand up to tell me what that looks like,” she said.
It did not look like a happy meal.
“It looks like a prison,” one student in the audience said.
“It’s called confinement farming,” Jaylah explained, “and it’s not good for the animals, and it’s not good for us.”
Another student, 16-year-old Brynae Harrod, gave an overview of “regenerative farming,” which uses crop rotation and other techniques to reduce methane emissions and other greenhouse gases. “That approach does not use as many pesticides,” Brynae said. “It’s better for the food and better for the environment.”
The day-long summit was held last week and hosted by the Capital City Public Charter School and the University of the District of Columbia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
By a show of hands, workshop participants said they preferred regenerative farming practices to conventional farming. But their reactions to the photos of farm animals being squeezed to death in tightly packed pens suggested that meat might be off the menu for a while, regardless of how it is prepared.
Another team of students did a workshop on improving the quality of food in their school cafeteria. If their plan succeeded, the school would offer more fresh fruits and vegetables. “No more mystery meats,” as one of the students call it.
But the changes would not be made until after they had graduated. They would not be around to taste the fruits of their labors. I talked with them after the presentation, impressed by their efforts to make life better for those who would be coming after them.
“I have a baby cousin, and I was thinking, ‘How is it going to be for her when she gets my age, growing up in this kind of environment?’ ” said Tori Blakeney, a 16-year-old student at Capital City Public Charter High School in Northwest Washington. “I want her to have fresher foods. Like, when you get chicken at school, you don’t want to see pink or raw meat or anything that can make you feel skeptical. I’m more worried about her than myself because she doesn’t know how to take care of herself. And I don’t want her being served some unhealthy food when she goes to school.”
Under first lady Michelle Obama, the federally funded Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act set stricter nutritional standards for school breakfasts and lunches. But under the Trump administration, implementation of those standards has been slowed. Schools don’t have to reduce the sodium in meals until 2021, they can opt out of serving only whole-grain enriched foods, and chocolate and flavored milk are back in, as long as they’re labeled reduced fat.
The students were doing what the adults should do, providing healthy alternatives and looking for ways to get food to those who need it the most.
“We were thinking of ways to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots by sharing some of the food we don’t eat with people who don’t have any food,” said Daniel Escobar, 16. “We waste so much food at our schools. There is more than enough to go around. But I don’t hear a lot of talking about solving problems by sharing. It’s still about what country has the most guns, the biggest bombs.”
The youngsters have been watching. And listening. That’s for sure. They’re collecting more data about us than Facebook.
Fortunately, those at the food summit seemed more interested in helping the ones coming up behind them instead of getting even with the ones who came before.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.