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Feed it Forward: Winchester Thurston students create nonprofit

Marty Levine
January30/ 2014

Feed it Forward: Winchester Thurston students create nonprofit

What inspired 10 Pittsburgh high-schoolers to create Feed It Forward to teach local middle-schoolers about the health and environmental impact of eating better?

Travelling to Nepal and Sri Lanka to see how other young people accomplished their own nonprofit missions.

Partnership with Children’s International Student Villages

Winchester Thurston sophomore Max Rogow of Highland Park had already been involved in the Children’s International Student Villages (CISV) program, meeting with other youth to discuss world issues. Then he heard about a youth leadership-training program focused on the issue of environmental health. Now called Youth Leadership Program (YLP) with Nepal, it is funded by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered in Pittsburgh by Magee Womancare International.

“In CSIV, there’s a lot of discussion about peace and sustainability and human rights, but there’s not really much action,” he says. The state department program “has definitely empowered me to take action. We’ve had discussions … but we’ve actually done something about it, and I can say we’ve helped the community. It’s helped me see that it’s wildly rewarding when you have a passion for something and you can talk to other people about it and use outreach skills and leadership skills and have a group come together to create this.”

YLP first brought students from Nepal and Sri Lanka to Pittsburgh last spring. The Pittsburgh students travelled to both countries for three weeks last summer to meet with the students and with local nonprofits. They have been working on Feed It Forward ever since, with culminating events held this month.

“I definitely learned what makes a good leader, met good people and stepped out of my comfort zone,” says YLP participant Janelle Sands, a Sewickley Academy junior from Sewickley. “It was really inspiring to know there were other people out there trying to make a change like us.”

From the streets of Katmandu

“Nepal is a lot different obviously than it is here,” says Rogow, “but the type of work that these nonprofits are doing is somewhat similar to organizations here.”

The group met with the Nepal Breakdance Foundation, which was formed to aid youth following the end of Nepal’s civil war in 2006.

“It’s very focused on working at the ground level,” he says. “And working directly with the kids on the street. We danced with them. And we were with them when they were dancing for other people” at a school where they were presenting their message. The younger kids in the school, he believes, “definitely saw the breakdancers as role models and people, like them, who haven’t had much wealth,” but who are nonetheless doing something productive with their lives.

The Nepal Breakdance Foundation goes into schools with an anti-drug and alcohol message and a push to “use your time in a more productive way,” explains one of the YLP adult facilitators, Michele Cahill of Regent Square.

“Don’t trash the environment” was another theme of their presentation. “There’s a huge pollution and trash problem in Nepal,” Cahill says. “I think that really inspired the [Pittsburgh] kids to go into schools here” with the complementary message about local, healthy eating.

The Pittsburgh group was “able to see these youth in Nepal are doing these great things – why can’t we do them? They were able to take some of the stories and leadership from the Nepal Breakdance Foundation and take it back to the Pittsburgh community.”

In Sri Lanka, the group discovered the Foundation of Goodness. “They were a very, very successful and large organization,” Rogow says. “They had lots and lots of different ways they were helping the community,” from English and computer class to holding pre-schools and providing a huge sports complex with coaches for the kids.

Observes Cahill: “Our students were able to see the different things the foundation does for its community on a daily basis,” from planting trees to building schools. “Seeing these things this foundation was able to do on a daily basis for so many people really inspired our students.”

Bringing the lessons back to Pittsburgh

When the group came back to Pittsburgh, part of YLP requirements was to propose a community action plan and apply for funding. Thus began Feed it Forward.

“The goal of our organization is to teach the Pittsburgh community about healthy food, that it is both nutritionally beneficial and environmentally sustainable,” says Rogow. “In Pittsburgh, there’s been a huge push toward sustainable living and eating habits, so we tried as a group to find a place that these organizations weren’t hitting.”

The group discovered that middle-school students weren’t yet getting enough of the message about healthy eating.

“It’s an incredibly important time,” Rogow notes. “Middle-school students can really understand the material given and they’re really in the midst of identifying who they are. We felt if we could add these healthy habits it could really help define who they are.”

“We got back in August and they hit the ground running,” says Cahill about YLP participants. “They’re so passionate when they present that it really does make you want to change your grocery habits: What produce you’re buying, what snacks you’re having.”

The kids’ presentation, says Sands, includes showing the middle schooler how the food they eat affects the environment, from the food industry’s use of insecticides to long-distance transportation. They played a quiz game with the kids, challenging them to solve such food conundrums as, “Which has more protein, tree nuts or chicken wings?”

The presentation also included the on-site creation of a healthy smoothie for the middle-schoolers, made from blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, bananas, apple juice and vanilla yogurt.

To test the effectiveness of their presentation, the Feed It Forward crew has given middle-schoolers pre- and post-tests, asking each time, for instance, “How does your food affect your environment?”

“When we got the post-tests back, we got a lot more educated answers and we were very pleased about that,” Sands says.

In early January, the group put on a healthy eating fair at Pittsburgh Obama Academy with the East End Food Coop and local representatives of chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the schools they’ve been in,” says Ryan Jensema of Penn Hills, another of the group’s adult facilitators. “One of the things the kids learned to do really well is to network with people and groups that have a common goal with you.”

And some of the shy ones have gained interpersonal skills as well, he says. “I saw some of them coming out of their shells and coming up to people: ‘Can I tell you about our organization?’ I’m really proud of the kids?”

At St. Edmund’s Academy, Rogow found 25 very active kids who were nonetheless receptive to the Feed It Forward message. “We showed them how good it is, easy it is and tasty it is to eat healthy. It was a great experience. They really listened.”

Concludes Rogow: “It’s one thing to talk about an issue, but it’s much more rewarding and satisfying to go and do something about it.”

Marty Levine