Ever Since Haile Thomas Was 10, She’s Worked to Change the Way Kids Think About Food

by Katherine Sacks

1/23/19

When I was 10, I was interested in watching TV, shopping for new clothes and baking anything sweet. Haile Thomas was speaking about healthy food at conferences like TEDx. Eight years later and Thomas has presented at conferences all over the country, is the youngest Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach in the US, and has personally engaged over 15,000 kids. (I, on the other hand, have done none of that.)

The extremely driven Thomas was drawn towards healthy foods after her father’s Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and later recovery thanks to the family’s diet changes. To share her newfound food knowledge and encourage healthy eating in her peers, Thomas founded her nonprofit HAPPY (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth) in 2013. Through school cooking, nutrition programs and camps, HAPPY teaches kids to think about their food choices and how they impact personal health.

Haile Thomas.
Haile Thomas. Photo credit: Tenneal McNair

Now 18, the inspiring Thomas has no intention of slowing down. With an online HAPPY course and a book in the works, she’s expanding her reach exponentially. Thomas recently took some time away from her impressive schedule to chat with me about engaging with food change at a young age, nutrition education and what the future of food should look like.

Your interest in food started at a pretty young age. What inspired you to focus on food?

It started with my dad being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2009, when I was around 8 years old. I come from a family that really loves trying lots of different cuisines, enjoying food and all of its amazingness without really looking at it as something that could be powerful and healing. When he was diagnosed, we started looking into his medication and side effects and realized quickly that wasn’t a route that we wanted him or our family to go down. So, we took the path of food instead of medicine. Within about a year we were able to completely reverse his condition without medication by changing our lifestyle, educating ourselves on the choices we were making, getting into the kitchen more and finding ways to make fruits and vegetables taste really good.

Once you realized how successful these sort of eating changes can be, you started talking about it in public. How did you get started?

I started to notice how my peers and their families were unaware of just how impactful their daily food choices were. I would see my friends with candy and chips and pizza and think about how they really don’t know that what they’re feeding their bodies truly can lead to illnesses in the present and in the future. I also kind of felt betrayed by my school and by my community for not having nutrition education as an essential part of my learning experience at really a young age.

Luckily, we were able to find a nonprofit called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. At the time, they had a youth advisory board, and they were looking for applicants to represent all 50 states. At that point I was about 10, and of course I didn’t have any experience with public service, but just really wanted to find a way to get more involved and become more educated if possible. They accepted my application based on my family’s story and how eager I was to learn more and try to make a difference in my community.

And with that, it was kind of like a domino effect, really. They gave me an opportunity to speak at the Partnership for a Healthier America summit. I didn’t really think I wanted to be a speaker, but they saw something in me and just wanted me to kind of try it out and see how I felt. I talked about my family’s journey and also how important it is for a kid to be in the kitchen and be involved in their personal health and the health of their family. That eventually led to me to working with Hyatt Hotels for a few years on making their kids’ menu healthier, and then eventually founding my nonprofit.

What was the experience like as a 10-year-old to get in front of a big crowd?

My mom has always told me to be a leader, not a follower. I think that definitely helped me realize that my voice was valid and important on that stage, just as much as a 40-year-old or Michelle Obama even. No matter who you are, your voice is valid. That was something that was heavily ingrained in my childhood, so I always kind of had this perception that what I had to say was important.

But it was, of course, a really surreal moment. My first speech I got a standing ovation and that was kind of like this validation that it’s okay for kids to talk about things that they find important. It was a kind of boost of encouragement. At that same event, I met First Lady Michelle Obama and got to talk with her for a few minutes, about all of my hopes and dreams and what I wanted to do within the health movement. Hearing her feedback and her encouragement was something that definitely fueled me for so many years.

And then you founded your nonprofit, HAPPY? What is your goal?

Through HAPPY, which stands for Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth, we teach plant-based nutrition and culinary education programs all across the country through in-school pop-ups, in-school nutrition and culinary programs, and summer camps. We run all these programs based on demand or requests from schools. Going on six years later, we’ve impacted well over 15,000 kids.

And for the past three years, we’ve been working on a new program that will allow us to virtualize everything that we teach physically and make it something that is easily adaptable to any classroom in any community through an online portal.

Haile Thomas with children on a farm
Courtesy of Haile Thomas/HAPPY

What kind of change have you seen in the kids that go through the HAPPY program?

The kids go through our programs and come out having a newfound appreciation for healthy food, and also a newfound ability to try new foods, become less picky eaters, just be more open in general to health and wellness. They also encourage their parents to join this journey with them, whether that’s sharing information with them or asking for things like blenders and convection ovens for Christmas. We’ve seen kids go home and talk to their parents who may be suffering with Type 2 diabetes or obesity, and they will actually take this information to heart and work to reverse those conditions.

Why do you think that eating healthy is so challenging for many people?

I think one of the biggest ones is culture and what’s been passed down through generations. I think oftentimes with illnesses, like Type 2 diabetes, doctors are quick to say that it runs in the family. But what we’re seeing is that it’s actually the dietary choices that run in the family. If your plate has looked like meat, rice, gravy and like one teaspoon of vegetables for two or three generations, those habits and those kind of points of view on food are going to be pretty set in stone for the next generations and continue to be passed on.

Then, of course, lack of access and resources is a huge problem. People of color have lack of access to foods and ingredients that would benefit them in many ways. A lot of the communities that we work in, they only have access to corner stores that sell chips and super sugary drinks and only have bananas as fresh produce. In communities like that, you can’t really think about health and wellness and healthy food if A) you don’t see it at all represented in your grocery stores or even as an option, and B) if you do see it, you can’t even afford it. So that in itself is a whole other issue that is very large and very complex but definitely a huge contributor to lack of health and wellness.

And then you also have peoples’ perception of healthy food as something that’s disgusting, just like some soggy boiled mush. And then, of course, the perception that only rich people or white people deserve health and wellness.

Do you have any advice for other young people or even people in general that are looking to get into food advocacy?

There are incredible organizations that are always looking for volunteers, help, support — whether that’s your time, resources or money. Of course, my organization is one of those!

But activism and joining the food movement doesn’t really have to be hard. It’s not something that is exclusive. You can join the movement simply by posting what you’re eating for lunch and sharing your thoughts on Instagram. It doesn’t have to be a big fancy thing or a speech or a business, but if you want it to be a speech or a business go for it, for sure. Start connecting with people in those arenas, whether that’s through social media or visiting community centers and in community gardens and finding ways that you can get involved. At this point in the age of the internet and social media, it’s honestly super easy to find an entry point.

Courtesy of Haile Thomas/HAPPY

What is your next step? What are you doing next?

I’m currently working on a book which is really exciting, and we have our HAPPY Academy new virtual program that we’ve been working on, that’s really going to be awesome. And, of course, in the future, we are looking forward to having a facility and a building to host our cooking classes and our summer camps.

This has all been really inspiring, thank you so much for chatting with me. I wish I was thinking about food the way you are when I was 10. I was just thinking about making cookies.

I was still thinking about making cookies, but I was trying to find a way to, like, put carrot pulp in it or something.

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