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Mark(in carrot crown) and Kristin(drumming) Kimball fire up students about farming.
Mark(in carrot crown) and Kristin(drumming) Kimball fire up students about farming.

High school students gather for food summit

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Teenagers might be known for eating a lot. But they don't always think about where that food is coming from, or whether it's healthy for them. That changed for some students who gathered in SUNY Potsdam's student union this week for the North Country Food Day Youth Summit. The summit was sponsored by GardenShare and the St. Lawrence County Health Initiative. Julie Grant attended, along with two hundred and forty high school students from 30 different schools.

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Food day started with some fun. Drumming. A farmer dancing around the auditorium in only his underpants, a carrot crown, and hula-style skirt made of Brussels sprouts.

It was Mark Kimball. He and his wife Kristen spoke about the joy and optimism, money and hard work that goes into their small, horse-powered farm in Essex. 

Then things quieted down for a short film called "Nourish":

"When it comes to food, most of us are completely in the dark. We are eating in the dark. The biggest question to ask yourself about food, ‘where does this come from?’ And that begins the telling of the story…."

The film connects food with issues such as climate change, social justice, and personal health.

Bright-eyed Breanna Helfrich is turning 15 this week. Her jaw dropped, and she quietly said “wow”, as food author Michael Pollan called the Gulf of Mexico the toilet bowl of the Midwest because of pesticide runoff from farms.

"I was pretty amazed what I found out about what’s in the food…and how it could affect my health in the long run," Helfrich said. “I usually eat a lot of stuff that has a lot of sugar, and sports drinks because I do play a lot of sports and fast food because practice runs late, and stuff like that. So I just eat what I can grab and don’t pay any attention to what’s in it…”

As it turns out, 17-percent of the calories teenagers eat come from fast food. 

Students learned that in this workshop, where they were asked to look critically at how food is marketed and advertised. Food makes you popular, it makes you cool, it’s fun:

A commercial for Kids Cuisine Cheese Blasters played on the screen

Students said they didn’t really have that much fun eating mac and cheese. 

Some were taken aback to learn that some McDonald’s hamburgers are more than 4-times bigger now than when the company started in the 1950s.  And that the average plate in America is 4 inches bigger than it was in the 50s, so it takes more food to make the plate look full.  And that Americans today eat an average of 500 calories a day more than they did in 1970. 

Lunch today is a green salad, hearty root vegetables, and meat or veggie chili,  made from scratch.  Many of the ingredients are from local farms. 

These students live in the heart of farm country, and still many haven’t thought about where food comes from, beyond a store or restaurant.   

But some of the kids sitting next to them at the food summit actually work in the fields and barns, milking cows and growing vegetables.

Paige Morrill is a student at Hermon-DeKalb Central Schools. In the morning, she sat on a panel with other kids who’ve grown up on big farms and small farms. She says the summit is a chance to tell kids how food is really produced:

“We’re the large farm. Lots of people complain about how we treat our cows on large farms, but we actually treat our cows pretty well and let them eat and roam around in the free stall and sleep and do whatever they want pretty much, and they’re relatively happy.”

Morrill says the youth food summit seemed biased in favor of small farms:

"Everybody’s like go organic and go small farm and local. Which is fine and it’s what my friend are. And that’s great too. I just want to let people know that large farms are okay too. We’re all okay."

15-year old Eli Smith is a sophomore at Hermon-DeKalb.  He’s grown up on a small farm. He says they’re also fighting stereotypes:

“That small farms aren’t just a bunch of hippies that came from the city and were like, ‘Oh, let’s do farming.’ It’s actually people that want to make a change and get better food into our local economy.”

When asked if he was going to stay on the farm when he got older, Smith responded “I really don’t want to stay on the farm…because you don’t get days off, you can’t go and do. I’ve done this all of my life, and I want to do something else.

Smith also expressed concern that some adults and kids like to romanticize farming.

Simply put, "Farming is hard," said Smith.

Smith and the other young farmers talked about all the daily chores they have do to, along with their regular school work. They appreciate the work ethic they’re developing, but said it’s hard to get everything done. Only 1 of the 5 on the panel wants to be a farmer. 

But Eli Smith says he’ll come back to help with haying and, of course, for the food.

Students from Northwood, a private school in Lake Placid, noticed the difference in the farm-raised lunch.  Junior Serena Mendola and her friends say it was so hearty, they felt full after only ten bites:

“At school, we could eat five plates, and not get full,” Mendola said.

“I’ve seen you wolf down 6 or 7 plates,” another student added.

“But you don’t get full, why, because it’s not substantial,” finished Mendola. 

The food service director from Northwood was also at the conference. He says he’s learning that he can make healthy foods from scratch. Although, he’s not sure if students back at school will eat them.

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