For most people, meeting the First Lady is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At 15, Haile Thomas has already met Michelle Obama six times.
“She’s so inspirational and a great example of how to build a movement,” says the food activist, chef, and cookbook author from Tucson, Ariz.
As a member of the first generation of kids to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, Thomas has a stake in Obama’s campaign to raise healthier children. But it wasn’t a malnourished friend or sibling that led to her first meeting with Obama in 2011. It was all about her father.
When Thomas was 8, her dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which came as a complete shock to her family. The statistics they uncovered in their subsequent research also surprised them: In the United States, nearly 28 million adults and children suffer from the chronic condition.
Determined to help her husband beat the disease without drugs, Thomas’s mom dove into the latest nutrition research and began transforming their eating habits. Always eager to help in the kitchen, Thomas watched and learned as her mom swapped more nutrient-dense ingredients into their family’s favorite Jamaican recipes.
Thomas soon began talking with her friends about their school lunches and sharing what she learned about food and health. “My mom has always told me to be a leader and to do what I love,” she explains.
Inspired to do more to educate kids about nutrition, Thomas applied for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Youth Advisory Board — and was selected as a youth ambassador. Two years later, she founded her own nonprofit, the HAPPY Organization (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful Youth), to teach nutrition education and healthy cooking skills to children.
She has since attended the State of the Union address as a guest of the First Lady, spoken at TEDx conferences, designed a new kids’ menu for Hyatt Hotels, and launched Plant-Powered Haile, her popular YouTube channel. She is currently studying at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to become the youngest certified health coach.
While Thomas’s accomplishments are impressive, she’s most proud of how her life reflects what her mom has taught her — that ignoring the status quo and following your passion can make a difference in the world.
Q&A With Haile Thomas
Experience Life | Your dad’s type 2 diabetes diagnosis was a wake-up call for your family to make lifestyle changes. How did you do it?
Haile Thomas | After researching his condition, we learned about all of these crazy things that could happen if he wasn’t taken care of properly, like becoming blind or losing a limb. We also reviewed the possible side effects of his medication, which seemed bad, so we decided to take a different approach to help him manage the disease.
My mom learned online that food can be used to cure type 2 diabetes, so we revamped our diet by trading our favorite foods for more nutritious options. We’ve always cooked and enjoyed rich, flavorful foods, but sometimes what we made didn’t offer much in the way of nutrition. Eventually, we transitioned to a plant-based diet.
We did it together — it’s so much easier if things are done as a family. We learned about the food industry, factory farming, and the importance of reading food labels. It was extremely eye opening to see and experience firsthand how food has a direct impact on your health and that of your family.
EL | How and why did you decide to reach out to other kids about what
HT | I was shocked when I learned that kids my age were being diagnosed with conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So I started sharing what I had learned about food and nutrition.
I’d go to school and be excited to talk to my friends about not eating potato chips, and they didn’t quite understand. That’s when I realized that kids need this information the most, because they play a huge role in how their families eat. If you’re at the supermarket begging for sugary cereal or chips, that influences your parents’ buying decisions. Lots of people focus on adult health but not necessarily on educating kids, so that’s why I wanted to do it.
Internet research led my mom and me to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a Clinton Foundation initiative. It has an advisory board that kids can join to become health representatives for their state, so I applied and was accepted. That catapulted my whole career and mission and the work I’ve done for almost six years.
EL | Your organization, HAPPY, mostly works with grade-schoolers. Why is that a critical time for intervening and teaching healthy habits?
HT | Kids in elementary school are in a transitional phase. They’re learning a lot of stuff, and they are so receptive and open to being adventurous. The younger we can help make kids aware of their food and fitness choices, the better their lives will be down the line. Plus, they’re so much fun to work with!
EL | What are some ways the organization engages and educates kids and teens about making healthy food choices?
HT | We do lots of activities and games. One of the favorites is called Seasonal Search, which teaches about seasonal eating. During the game, kids have different sheets of paper with pictures of fruits and vegetables on them. They have to match those fruits and vegetables to the proper season they’re grown in.
Some kids will put watermelon in winter, which starts a discussion about why they think it grows then, and it’s a great time to talk about the vitamins in a watermelon.
We also have a summer camp in July. We get a bunch of tweens and teens to volunteer, and they learn leadership skills as well as about cooking and nutrition.
It’s effective to have kids talk to kids because we like learning from and influencing our peers. It feels more personal than a lecture or someone saying you have to do something. It’s more of a conversation, like, “Hey, I’ve been your age and it wasn’t too long ago, so I’m here for added support — not to tell you what to do, but just to offer this advice about what’s worked for me.” It’s an amazing thing. It’s a completely different connection and reception.
EL | You have some great recipes on your website. What’s one of your favorites?
HT | I have so many! Right now, my favorite savory one is throwing some walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, chipotle peppers, and lots of spices into a food processor and eating it like taco meat in a lettuce wrap. You can add some fresh guacamole or pico de gallo. It’s really tasty! (For the full recipe, see below.)
EL | It often takes people years to find their passion or fall into the rhythm of what they want to do with their lives. How did you find your path so early?
HT | I’ve always loved cooking and helping others, but after meeting First Lady Michelle Obama at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit when I was 10, I realized health advocacy was my passion. I listened to her speech and she was so incredible.
After I gave my own speech, many people told me how important my message about kids and adults collaborating on health is. That validated my work and was a turning point. Even though it was early in my life, I knew I really loved talking to and helping people and sharing a message that means something.
I think the thing that everybody has to find and embrace is what they love doing, then share it and be willing to stand up for it. Once you find that, follow it and don’t doubt yourself. If you don’t doubt yourself, then nobody else will bother doubting you, and you’ll be able to reach your goals and dreams.
Photography by Kwaku Alston
Sundried-Tomato-Walnut Tacos With Avocado Crema
Teen chef and health advocate Haile Thomas shares her recipe for vegan grain-free tacos.
For Walnut “Meat”:
- 2 cups raw walnuts
- 1/2 cup sundried tomato
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons cumin powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro
- 1/4 cup tamari
- 2 avocados
- 1/2 cup cilantro
- 1/4 piece of jalapeño
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
- Salt to taste
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Sliced Red Onions
- Sliced Jalapeños
- Fresh Cilantro
Add all walnut meat ingredients to a food processor. Process slightly, leaving it crunchy and chewy but not mushed out. Set aside.
Add all avocado crema ingredients to a food processor or blender. Process until smooth and season to taste with salt. Set aside and refrigerate until ready to use.
Build your tacos on a lettuce “shell” by adding the walnut meat and suggested toppings or your favorite veggies and fruits. Top with the avocado crema.
Find more plant-powered recipes from Haile Thomas at www.hailevthomas.com.
Photography by Haile Thomas