Young people today are inheriting a catalogue of issues associated with a broken food system. Josh Viertel, former Slow Food USA President, told Slow Food’s International Congress in 2008, “There is bad news and good news about the youth of America. The bad news is that this is the first generation in America predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than its parents. The good news is that there is a group of young people who are determined to change that.” While faced with rising levels of both obesity and malnutrition, as well as climate change and global warming, they’re also, perhaps, the most motivated to change the food system.

Recently, the UN Population Fund estimated the global population of people between the ages of 10 and 24 has hit 1.8 billion, a historic high. The sheer number of young people at this juncture suggests the potential for unprecedented economic and social progress.

I had the chance to speak with three young people, to learn more about their experience with food and their motivations to meaningfully connect with it. And while each engages with the subject from a different perspective — as grower, advocate and cook — they share a determination to shape the future of their food.

Tyriq: The Bedroom Grower, 19 years old, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Despite the increasing population of young people, the average farmer in the US is 58 years old. Many organisations around the world are engaging young people in agriculture to bridge this age gap. But farming as a profession, continues to throw up barriers as a viable career path, especially for young people who largely lack access to land and capital.

In urban areas, however, creative solutions to growing food sustainably are springing up fast. Rooftops, abandoned lots, used shipping containers and empty warehouses provide desperately needed space for city dwellers to grow food. In a neighbourhood of West Philadelphia, access to green space is being cleverly overcome in the unlikeliest of places – a teenager’s bedroom.

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Tyriq, a teenage plant fanatic and something of a young sage, converted his small bedroom in his grandmother’s house into a veritable greenhouse. Now teeming with nearly 300 plants, every nook and cranny is occupied with plant life. When asked why he grows in his bedroom, his answer is simple: “Teenagers are lazy,” he says, “and like to do things as quickly as possible.” He has a point. What’s quicker than falling out of bed to tend to your crops? Yet Tyriq’s reasons for having a greenhouse in his room go deeper than proximity to his plants.

It all started with a gift: when Tyriq was a young boy, he received a “lucky bamboo” plant. Under his care, the bamboo flourished, growing taller than he did. Fascinated by the rate of the bamboo’s growth and his ability to foster it, he began to sow whatever seeds he could find, pouring over books and surfing the internet to seek out information.

Tyriq’s green thumb landed him a job at an urban garden centre a few years ago, where he proudly imparts his wisdom to curious customers as well as feeding his own plant mania. But plants are feeding Tyriq’s body as much as his mind these days.

Knowing where his food comes from, how it’s grown and how it gets to his plate, has become a real concern for Tyriq. Six months ago, after watching the film Supersize Me, he took the decision to stop eating meat. He’s decided he doesn’t trust industrially farmed foods and has been inspired to start growing as much as he can in his bedroom. And it’s not only him who’s benefitting. He’s convinced his family to make changes too. His grandmother, whom he lives with, once called his room a big mess. Now she regularly harvests greens and herbs to complement family meals.

Tyriq has big plans beyond his bedroom greenhouse. He wants to go to college and study agribusiness and horticulture, so he can return to his community and open his own business. He hopes to mentor others on the taste and health benefits of freshly grown vegetables and herbs. His creativity utilising small spaces bodes well for a career as a future urban farmer, and his zeal for plants is contagious.

Laura: The Activist, 22 years old, Columbia, South Carolina

Laura is a third-generation vegetarian, a lifestyle rooted in a religious upbringing as a 7th Day Adventist. Growing up, food was a defining factor for Laura — she was the “weird” kid who brought “different” food to school.

In 8th grade, Laura also had what she refers to as a “food awakening” after seeing the documentary Food Inc. She began to question where her food came from and the modern food system at large. But it wasn’t until she left home for college that the frustration with industrially produced foods called her to action.

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Laura, like many other college students across America, was required to buy a meal plan as an incoming freshman living on campus. This means you have to eat a portion of your meals on campus. She struggled with being obliged to buy a plan, but having no choice in the food her money was buying. Fast food, junk food, and processed foods make up the majority of campus dining options, and as a vegetarian who supports sustainable food, Laura found her values, ideals and health compromised.

Although the campus food system isn’t a beacon of sustainability, the University of South Carolina (USC) is making strides. Laura found a group of like-minded students in the Office of Sustainability and began an internship with the student branch called Sustainable Carolina. There, the students are empowered to address campus and global issues through intensive experiential learning and leadership opportunities.

Through funding from Sustainable Carolina, Laura was able to attend the national conference of Real Food Challenge (RFC), and join nationwide efforts “to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local, community based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources by 2020.” Laura was blown away by the conference, and returned to campus to start RFC @ USC, a student-led group that is working closely with USC Dining and other campus food stakeholders to incorporate more local, organic and fair-trade food on campus.

“Students have a lot of economic power as consumers and can use that power to propel change,” Laura says. She sees public universities as potential powerhouses for real change in the food economy because of the volume of food they serve and the pressure they can put on the distributors that dominate the food system. As of November 2015, over 130 colleges and universities, including USC, are participating in a national, student-designed programme — called ‘The Real Food Calculator’ — to measure and report sustainable food in campus dining. Laura is a natural organiser, she tells me, but the RFC network gives her the tools she needs to lead her team to attain their goal of 20% of the university food budget going to sustainable foods. She’s completely confident they’ll be successful in reaching this goal, contributing to real change in the US food economy.

Ella: The Cook, 11 years old, Columbia, South Carolina

While growing and advocating for sustainable food is essential for our food communities of tomorrow, if the knowledge to cook the food is lost, these efforts are for naught. Michael Pollan, in an interview with Mark Bittman for The New York Times, acknowledged that the “most important front in the fight for reform in the food system today is in the kitchen.”

Luckily, there are young people like Ella, who believe food, and cooking in particular, can make a difference in her community. She believes that “If people knew where their food came from and stopped eating as much fast food, we’d be healthier. Also when you cook and eat together you slow down and get to know what’s going on; it shows you love each other and care.”

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Ella sees cooking as “an expression of her unique self.” Coming from a Southern family where long, home-cooked Sunday suppers are a ritual, cooking is a tradition she’s been raised to respect. Her grandmother taught her how to crack and separate eggs, harvest vegetables from the garden and cook with simplicity, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Having enrolled in cooking classes at the local kitchen shop for two summers, Ella is fully capable of cooking a 5-course meal. Yet, her favourite dish is freshly picked butter beans from the garden, boiled with a little salt and butter.

Ella doesn’t believe most kids care enough about food, and she wants to change that by showing them that cooking isn’t hard; it’s fun. And it tastes better that way! She’s currently researching a food project for her Girl Scout Silver Award, looking to local food organisations for community gardening and urban farming opportunities, hoping to demonstrate how farm-to-table cooking can be incorporated into everyday meals for a healthier lifestyle.

Tyriq, Laura and Ella share in common the state of mind and personal commitment necessary to make viable contributions to the sustainable food movement, one step at a time.

There is an opportunity here for young people engaged with food to lead the charge for healthier and more equitable access to food. But to make growing, cooking and eating a better reality for the next generation, we must equip these young people with mentorship skills to pass on their knowledge to others. Furthermore, we must provide ample opportunity for meaningful engagement with food and where it comes from at an early age. Efforts like Farm to School, Food Day, and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution can provide formative experiences and build a solid foundation for youngsters to spring from.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for well established and well funded civic organisations, like the Girl Scouts, who strive to make the world a better and greener place, to partner with sustainable food groups and develop education programmes. Prominent American chef, educator and food activist, Alice Waters, believes that “once people get connected to real food, they never change back.” It’s our job as adults to help make those connections: in schools, churches, community centres, and at home, planting the seeds of determination in our youth to mend the broken food system handed down to them.