Meet 12-year-old Koa Halpern, a life-long vegetarian who, several years ago, began looking at what’s in our nation’s fast food. What he discovered shocked him and spurred him to undertake a mission to educate other kids about the unhealthy side of drive-through dining.
Halpern began his quest with local lectures in Denver and then launched Fast Food Free, a website that discusses the American food system and spurs children and adults to make healthier choices.
Koa was interviewed by SN’s sister publication, Natural Foods Merchandiser:
Q: Why did you decide to start Fast Food Free?
A: I never really liked fast food, but I never thought much about it. However, all that changed when our [family’s] first Korean exchange student came. One of her first questions after arriving was, “When can we go eat fast food?” I was fascinated by this, so I decided to research fast food for a school project. I found that fast food impacts the world negatively in four major ways: It’s bad for people’s health, especially because of the obesity crisis; and it’s detrimental to the environment, farm- and food-industry workers, and farmed animals.
Maya Angelou once said, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” As a result, I was going to join an organization that helped people eat less fast food, but I found that no such thing existed. At that point, I felt I had to take action, so I began Fast Food Free.
Q: Do you have a goal for the nonprofit organization?
A: Fast Food Free is dedicated to educating people about our current food system. The goal is to help people eat less fast food and make healthier food choices. I support local farmers, organic agriculture, permaculture and eating great food at home.
I promote these goals by maintaining an educational website, giving presentations, writing blog posts and doing interviews. I also ask people to stop eating fast food for two weeks and to give more thought to their food choices. You can take the pledge at fastfoodfree.org.
Q: Where do you eat when you need a quick meal away from home?
A: Personally, I like to eat at Noodles & Co., Mad Greens, Souper Salad and Chipotle. On the Fast Food Free website, we feature restaurant guides that can help you choose places to eat.
Q: What would you like the future of fast food to be?
A: Food companies could improve the quality of their food. They could start by taking the industrialized factory out of food production. Until local, organic food is subsidized in the same manner as crops that feed the industrialized farms, I don’t see our food system changing.
Also, there’s the issue of supply and demand. Parents and other adults need to demand better food for our country. If people are willing to eat processed, cheap, chemical-laden food, the market will keep supplying it.
Q: How do you think you and your generation will change the way people eat?
A: I think if enough people in my generation realize what is happening, they will demand change. I read labels and think about what I’m eating. I encourage both adults and kids to become informed consumers.
Q: What do you hope is the next phase for fast-food restaurants?
A: Although some fast-food companies are trying to change their negative image, the reality is they are driven by profit. The health of people and the planet is not a goal. The goal is quick, easy money. As a society, we have to think we can pay now in the form of paying more for our food that is local, organic and better for us, or we can pay later in the form of environmental destruction and high health care costs.
Q: What do your friends think of Fast Food Free?
A: A few of my friends have not supported Fast Food Free, I think mostly because they just couldn’t understand where I was coming from. But for the most part, kids can understand my message no matter how great they think the food tastes. The reality is that it is just plain bad for you and it is bad for our Earth. Other friends of mine have supported Fast Food Free completely. They have given presentations, convinced their science classes to take the pledge and even donated money.
Q: What has surprised you in your research on the fast-food issue?
A: I have been really surprised about how negative fast food is for the environment and people’s health. I am constantly learning new things. For example, I just learned recently that high fructose corn syrup is so overly processed it can only be digested in the liver.
Q: Why is tackling the fast-food issue so important?
A: People are putting their lives in the hands of industrialized food production, and that’s having a disastrous effect on our planet and people’s health. The health of our planet and the health of individuals depend on making different choices. I think this starts with becoming educated about where our food comes from and how it is produced.
Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: It’s so hard to say. So many things interest me. I’ll probably be some type of scientist. For now, my first job is spreading the message of Fast Food Free.
Q: One last thing: Is Koa Halpern your full name?
A: My full name is Orlando KeKoa Bernard Kaimana Halpern. With a name like that, you can see why I just prefer to be called Koa. KeKoa and Bernard mean the same thing: the courageous or brave one. My grandpa was named Bernard. Kaimana means the soul or power of the ocean.
— Pamela Bond, for Natural Foods Merchandiser