During this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, Whole Kids Foundation took part in The Copernicus Project, part art exhibit, part science experiment and part immersive interactive experience, which explored the current state of our food system and examined our roles and responsibilities in shaping its future.

Nona Evans, Whole Kids Foundation president and executive director, was a panelist in the session The Future of Society Is on Our Children's Plates alongside Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D. with the Center for Individualized Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, and moderator Alexis Glick, CEO of GENYOUth.

The session was grounded in this pressing challenge: Children are our greatest asset, yet lack of proper nutrition is causing dramatic increases in diseases, hampering cognitive function and taxing our healthcare system. In order to build a healthy, strong society, we must nurture children through the food they eat and by improving the systems that bring food to the table.

We’re sharing some of Nona’s and Dr. Walther-Antonio’s contributions to the conversation including what steps we can all take to encourage change in our communities — and at our own kitchen tables.

Fixing Our Food (and Health) System

One of the conversations sparked by The Copernicus Project is the idea of biodiversity, a measure of the variety of life on Earth. Our environment needs it to thrive. Humans need it to thrive. Exposure to a varied diet early in life shapes the diversity and health of our microbiome, the community of microorganisms (like bacteria, fungi and viruses) in and on our bodies that plays a key role in our health. But our current diets are causing us trouble. 60 percent of the calories we eat come from four crop families: wheat, corn, rice and potatoes.

“As we lose diversity in our food, we also lose diversity in our microbiome. That impacts us early in life, when the variety of food we are exposed to plays an important role in developing a healthy immune system. If our early diet is not diverse, the microbiome can become sensitive, reacting to things it has not experienced (resulting in food allergies). And it can have longer term impacts on developing children in particular – they’re really susceptible to this. The future of food is that we need to think about what we want our kids to grow up to be... we don’t want them to be a generation less than we will.” – Dr. Walther-Antonio

“Childhood obesity and malnutrition (which exist simultaneously and sometimes in the same person) are overwhelming challenges, but there are very common-sense solutions. We can fix our food system one bite at a time. Our food choices can make us healthier and make our future generations healthier. What we’re all committed to is that our kids can turn their dreams into reality. And what we know is that they have to be well nourished every day at school in their learning environment and also at home.” – Nona Evans

Learn about Whole Kids Foundation's grants that set kids up for success at school.

How to Protect Our Kids’ Futures

For young children, the foods they eat and how that impacts the way their microbiome develops plays an important role in their long-term health. This is why it’s essential for children to eat the broadest range of fresh, whole foods possible — foods that maximize the prevention of disease and optimizes their health.

“There is such a thing as a microbiome that makes you obese, a propensity to be obese, to store energy in a way that otherwise you wouldn’t. So think about what that means. If you’re an obese child, you’re already at a stage where you have a trained microbiome. Even if you were to start a healthy diet, your organs are already hardwired to store energy as fat excessively, and that is a very hard thing to fix. With children it’s particularly worrisome because you’re setting up a pattern for the rest of their life.” – Dr. Walther-Antonio

“We must have the hard conversations, and we have to be aware of what we eat. At Whole Kids Foundation, we break it down to the simplest form. We make it fun for kids but also it works for adults.
• Eat a rainbow
• Eat greens first
• Eat as close to nature as possible

Curiosity is what we think of as our secret weapon. If we can help kids become aware and understand the connection between what they put in their bodies and how they feel, then we get their curiosity and they will go anywhere. We love the stories we hear. When they get to grow their own food, that’s when curiosity kicks in. What science tells us is that when kids grow any food, their willingness to try other foods just opens up. Curiosity is the path to helping our kids really reach their dreams, whether it’s curiosity in technology or curiosity at the table.” – Nona Evans

Read success stories about how schools are tapping into students’ curiosity with school gardens, salad bars, honey bee hives and more.

The Learning Connection

“The science is in! A nourishing well-balanced school meal has a direct correlation to academic performance. And when we’re talking about children’s education, that’s the currency. Our schools are rewarded based on academic performance. We’re asking you to take action. You can use your voice to tell whoever is in your stakeholder group — maybe it’s your neighbor, maybe it’s your child’s school, maybe it’s your elected official — that you feel that the importance of nourishing food at school should be higher on the priority list. It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. It’s something we can all do.” – Nona Evans

Teachers change lives. Get healthy recipes, activities for students and learn about our Healthy Teacher's Program to become a healthy role model in the classroom.

Building a Healthier Society

“The best treatment for any disease is not to get it in the first place. If you can prevent these problems from occurring, that’s the best thing you can do. So if we can prevent people and children from being malnourished — starting with a good breakfast — so they don’t have to deal with all the problems that come through that are very difficult to solve and sometimes not even possible to solve.” – Dr. Walther-Antonio

“Prevention is the answer. It is on our plate. We have a chance every time we nourish our bodies to choose health. With every bite, we get to choose sickness or health. Just make most of your bites healthy.” – Nona Evans

Discover healthy recipes that were created with our simple healthy eating principles in mind.

How to Start Changing the Future of Food for Our Kids

“If you give kids multiple things that are healthy — just different choices of foods like types of apples, bananas, blueberries and carrots — they might eat all of the same thing. They will pick whatever they want, and that’s fine. They will tell us what they need on that day right there because they’re not corrupted by sugar and fat. Our brain is tricked into searching for those sources of things. So that’s really where you can start… just give them options of fruits and vegetables and eventually they will want that. Children are like sponges, what they’re wired to do is search role models, to copy behavior, so if you really show them healthy things, that will be their norm, that will be their comfort, rather than high fat and sugary foods that are not very nutritious.” – Dr. Walther-Antonio

“The first thing that we all must do is honor the intuition our kids have. In their infancy, they are hardwired to know how to live healthfully. And when they get older, we are responsible to not get in their way. We have to be there to empower this intuition. Generation Z is the first foodie generation in 50 years. If we don’t get in their way, we’re going to make progress. They have more access to food information than any generation before. Whether they have access to food, that information is going to drive them to solve problems. So, this entrepreneurial spirit that exists in our kids is so important, we have to nurture it. Second, eat more plants. It’s just that easy. And third is, use your voice.” – Nona Evans

Inspire and empower your kids to make healthier food choices at home with our tips and tools for parents and families.

Creating Partners for Change

“Our kids got this — if we give them the right environment. They are so much like seeds. If we give them healthy soil, look out. They are going to grow. It takes all of us as individuals to do what we can do. Maybe that’s just eat a vegetable today. Maybe it’s starting to have deeper thoughts about our food. Maybe it’s using our voice. That really matters. It is also really important to have these public-private partnerships. Companies can make a difference — tackle tough conversations and make change. Have high expectations of your favorite companies. Do what you can do and change your expectations of others. Elected officials — they work for us. If we’re willing to use our voice, some of the systemic change that seems daunting really can happen.” – Nona Evans

Learn more about how a partnership between Whole Kids Foundation and Chef Ann Foundation is setting the stage for deep, lasting change like in Napa Valley Unified School District as it shifts from heat-and-serve processed foods to healthier, scratch-cooked meals using real ingredients.