December 2015 Issue

Teen Nutrition Leaders
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 17 No. 12 P. 40

Two brilliant, award-winning teenagers are improving the health and wellness of people in their communities with a focus on nutrition.

The determined efforts of two teenagers has shown that age is no obstacle for those who want something badly enough—and what these youths in particular wanted was to improve the health and wellness of people in their community and beyond. Sophie Bernstein, 15, from St. Louis, and Lauren Maunus, 17, from Palm City, Florida, were recently awarded for their individual efforts with the 2015 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, which recognizes "Generation Z-ers" and millennials for their commitment to social good.

While current and previous award-winning projects range in their subject matter and intention, such as public policy, education, science, and the environment, Bernstein and Maunus have focused on spreading a message of health and wellness with a particular nutrition component.

Bernstein's project, which mobilized her community to fight hunger and promote nutrition in low-income communities, established vegetable gardens in area preschools. Maunus took her inspiration from the near death of her sister due to a nut allergy and has lobbied for better food labeling and nutrition policies in area public schools and now across the country.

To celebrate two future leaders in the nutrition community, Today's Dietitian speaks with these teens about their award-winning projects.

Behind the Award
The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards are an annual recognition of a group of teenagers who are leading different volunteer projects across the country, all with a singular focus to change the world for the better. In its ninth year, the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties in California, gave the 2015 award to 15 teens.

Helen Diller, who passed away earlier this year, was a Bay Area philanthropist who dedicated her life to social good, including endeavors that furthered medical research and social responsibility. Diller's Jewish heritage also was close to her heart, which is why this award recognizes youths who identify as Jewish.

Award recipients, who each receive $36,000 to further their cause or education, are chosen for exemplifying the spirit of tikkun olam, which is a Jewish concept that refers to repairing the world. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than $2.5 million to teens who seek to improve the world around them in some way.

Inspiring Healthful Eating With Preschool Gardens
Bernstein, a sophomore at Clayton High School in St. Louis, says she always wanted a vegetable garden but was thwarted by her parents' initial opposition. Instead, a trip to one of her local food banks helped her cook up an idea to establish a garden to fight both childhood hunger and obesity.

Her initial inspiration started as a bat mitzvah project in 2013 to supplement local food banks with the harvest of a backyard garden. Yet upon her first trip to deliver her harvest spoils, what she saw left her disappointed.

"When delivering the produce from my garden to area food banks with my mom, I was surprised to see shelves at the food banks stocked with sugary juices, cookies, and salty snacks," she says. "There were limited fresh produce options and even fewer healthful nonperishable items like beans, whole wheat products, and low-sodium soups."

Acknowledging the high incidence of both childhood obesity and childhood hunger in her state, Bernstein sprung into action. As the summer garden season ended, she started hosting healthful food drives, collecting peanut butter, healthier canned soups, and beans to offer food banks more wholesome fare.

But she didn't stop there. Bernstein took that one garden and multiplied it, building raised-bed vegetable gardens at several area preschools. She was not only able to supplement food banks with more garden foods but also to educate preschoolers in low-income communities on the benefits of healthful eating along the way.

With the help of several grants and volunteers from her community, Go Healthy St. Louis became a reality. Seeking to raise awareness of childhood hunger and the increasing rate of childhood obesity in the St. Louis metropolitan area, Bernstein says the project comprises young volunteers committed to increasing the amount of fresh, healthful produce available at food banks and at low-income childcare facilities.

"All the produce that we grow in the raised garden beds is harvested and donated to area food banks, utilized for lunch at the preschool facilities, and/or given to the families in need at the schools and shelters," she says.

With the assistance of more than 750 volunteers that she recruited and trained, Go Healthy St. Louis has donated garden crops to St. Louis Food Bank, Operation Food Search, and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. Her gardens now total 18, all at area preschools and shelters serving low-income populations.

"Together, we've donated more than 5,000 pounds of fresh produce," Bernstein says.

To further her message, she also has developed a gardening tool kit, newsletter, and workshop materials for more than 1,200 teens who attend the monthly garden workshops she leads at synagogues, churches, and schools.

Building these gardens at local preschools wasn't a coincidence. Bernstein has used these locations to open the eyes of young children to the basics of healthful eating.
"To engage young children in the gardening process, we invite them to help with planting the seeds and seedlings," she says. "We read books to the children about gardening and healthful habits, play games, and incorporate art projects to help raise awareness of healthful eating."

The children at these preschools also help maintain the gardens, with the help of their teachers. The harvests are then used in school lunches or snacks, such as freshly sliced carrots, green and red peppers, and cucumbers with or without hummus for afternoon snack time. Produce also is given to the families at the schools and shelters.

Bernstein says the greater goal of these gardening steps is to build a healthful foundation and encourage youth to make healthier food choices. Those conversations can never start early enough.

Her favorite part of the entire project? Watching preschoolers get their hands dirty.
"Many of the children at the shelter and at the area preschools never had the opportunity to take care of and water vegetable plants and watch tomatoes and cucumbers grow or pick them fresh for their meals," Bernstein says. "And most of the children had very limited access to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables."
From leading gardening workshops to recruiting volunteers on a regular basis, it hasn't been easy. But Bernstein says she's learned invaluable lessons through her efforts, most notably that anyone, no matter their age, can truly make an impact to improve the overall health of their community.

"Our goal is to educate young children on the importance of gardening and eating fresh produce while making a sustainable impact in our community," she says. With the spoils from this award, she plans to grow and expand this project, both in greater St. Louis and nationwide. Toward that end goal, Bernstein is currently working with SafeTEEN Coalition in New York and students at three high schools in Indiana to provide advice and support to build more gardens in low-income communities throughout the nation.

For the recognition, she's thankful because it's giving her the opportunity to remind all young people of their limitless potential for good, particularly in fighting today's biggest nutrition challenges.

"I encourage all young people to take action and help solve public health challenges like obesity, smoking, and to raise awareness for healthful eating in their communities and make an impact," she says.

Spreading Allergen Awareness in Schools
Maunus, now a freshman at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, never envisioned herself as a food allergy advocate until one critical moment in January 2002 changed everything.

"One moment we were frolicking on the beach; the next, I watched in horror as my 2-year-old sister nearly died from eating a cashew," she explains.
Maunus' sister, Rachel, got the necessary medical treatment and survived the anaphylactic attack. But as she was diagnosed with a life-threatening tree nut allergy, the family was told that just one bite of a nut could be fatal.

"Rachel's life became a minefield," says Maunus, noting that she couldn't just stand by and hope her sister would be safe. "I had to stand up for her, serve as her advocate."

And what an advocate she became. After learning that some 6 million other children just like Rachel were lacking access to critical allergen information at school, Maunus sought to change nutrition policy in schools.

"While a daily trip to the school cafeteria is a time for lunch and to socialize for most students, it can be a scary, life-threatening ordeal for Rachel and the 6 million students like her," she says. "Federal law mandates that all food items identify allergens, but shockingly, this does not apply to public schools."

Maunus is referring to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 that requires all food manufacturers and retail and foodservice establishments that sell packaged FDA-regulated foods to clearly list on food labels any of the eight most common allergens the food contains. Unlike FALCPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, published in 2013, doesn't mandate that all packaged foods sold in school cafeterias list food allergens on labels, although reading the labels of prepackaged foods sold is highly recommended. "I was determined to seek solutions to the notion that [kids with food allergies] were destined to live their lives in fear."

Maunus' advocacy efforts began four years ago, when she was a freshman in high school. As a Youth in Government delegate, she drafted a bill to improve best practices in school food allergy management and was awarded "Best Bill in the House" out of 700 other youth delegates. That success had her head spinning with potential.

"I realized that I had the potential to effect meaningful change, and methodically sought to make the bill a part of Florida law," she says.

Her overall mission is to reform national school nutrition policy to improve best practices for students suffering from allergies, obesity, and other diet-related illnesses by identifying the top eight allergens and other nutritional information for all items offered in each of the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools.

"Providing potentially life-saving allergen and nutrition information educates, empowers, and engages students in their nutrition while keeping allergic students safe at school," she says.

Offering allergen and other nutritional information doesn't just help those with food allergies. "Nutrition affects each one of us, and we can all make a difference in improving our own health and society's health by being educated and engaged in our nutrition choices," she says. "Reading labels to see what is in the food we eat is a great first step to engaged nutrition!"

In her efforts to reform national school nutrition policy to improve best practices for students, she made huge inroads, but not without encountering some setbacks. She says her biggest challenge was being one small 13-year-old voice and communicating a compelling argument to overworked, underfunded, adult decision makers. "I was rejected by both local and state government officials who felt I had a great idea, but immediately responded, 'Who is going to pay for it?'

"I had to demonstrate how my idea was operationally feasible in a state with 67 [counties having] school districts with a wide range of budgets and resources," she says. "Additionally, I had to convince legislators from districts that derive revenue (and campaign contributions) from the dairy industry that disclosing 'contains milk' is intended to save lives, not to hurt their business interests."

Maunus let neither money nor liability, or even special interests, stand in her way. Any objections only intensified her resolve. After working with software company Nutrislice to improve their product's allergen identification component, she then helped introduce the software to Martin County's Food Service Department and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In addition to filtering for allergens, the software also provides comprehensive nutritional information via school district-hosted websites and a mobile application. "The app is specific to each meal, each day, for each school, connecting the bridge between the end users (the students), the school district, and the food suppliers," says Maunus, noting that the app adds no extra cost to school districts, as it actually saves labor expenses by eliminating the need to manually input nutritional and allergen information.

"Additionally, the software allows the information to be managed at the district level, improving standardization," she adds. "Most importantly, the app empowers the entire school community to make informed decisions regarding their nutrition, making the cafeteria a safer and healthier environment."

From this experience, Maunus lobbied her way to success.

"I led a grassroots campaign, engaging the support of local legislators, school board members, and medical and education organizations," she says. And, despite some opposition to stray from the norm, she convinced her local school board to pilot the technology. Determined to reach more students with such nutrition information, she then took her voice to Tallahassee, the state capital of Florida.

After two years of support, guidance, negotiation, and collaboration, Florida's Department of Agriculture has implemented this software in school districts in each of Florida's 67 counties.

"My project has resulted in a widespread increase in awareness, giving voice to this serious public health issue," she says. "Additionally, students, parents, and school faculty are now trained in food allergy management, including emergency preparedness, cross-contamination, and label reading."

But Maunus still wasn't stopping. In the past two years, she has worked with numerous officials and organizations, including the USDA, the CDC, national allergy organizations, and even First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, to scale her project nationwide.

"Collaborating with national food allergy, nutrition, and governmental organizations, I envision utilizing the gains of my project as an integral component of a national school nutrition omnibus bill, serving as guidance for the 2015 reauthorization of the USDA Child Nutrition Act," she says.

These days Maunus is studying environmental studies at Brown University, and her lofty goal is to ensure that environmental justice for all includes nutrition as an important part of a greater whole. "Whether it be improving access to healthful foods for those who live in food deserts or safeguarding the lives of members of frontline communities at risk of climate change, I foresee working with an NGO [nongovernmental organization] to promote sustainability and climate action while disseminating the message that environmental security is a fundamental human right," Maunus says.

— Juliann Schaeffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Alburtis, Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to Today's Dietitian.