She runs an NGO, teaching school children how to eat more healthily by cooking and incorporating more vegetables into their diets. She tours the country—and even the world—giving classes and cooking demonstrations. Every year, she runs a summer camp to engage children and initiate them into the world of vegetable goodness.
She has made tons of media appearances, including The Today Show, Rachael vs. Guy Kids Cook-Off, and The Dr. Oz Show. She has been featured in Fortune Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, Teen Vogue and YES! Magazine. She has also given talks for TEDx and Deepak Chopra’s symposium, and even cooked at the White House at the invitation of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
You would imagine this to be an accomplished chef or nutritionist who has been on the food scene for decades. How would you react if I told you this “celebrity” is a 16-year-old girl?
Quite incredible, isn’t it? When I first saw her speak, I couldn’t believe such eloquence and maturity could come out of a teenager’s mouth. It took a long time to sink in. Who I saw in front of me is the youngest certified health coach to have graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the largest nutrition school in the world—which happens to be the nutrition school I study with.
Her name is Haile Thomas. At an age when most of us were fixated on how we looked, getting a date or wondering what we were going to do the rest of our lives, Haile has already been running an NGO called HAPPY Organization, full-time, for four years.
Making Kids HAPPY and Healthy
HAPPY stands for Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth. The organization’s goal is to educate and inspire young people in underserved and at-risk communities to take their health into their own hands. HAPPY shows them the connection between food and health and exposes them to wholesome and affordable ways to prepare their meals.
Together with her mother, Charmaine, Haile organizes workshops, cooking classes and summer camps to bring youngsters aged 6 through 13 together, teaching them life skills that are mostly left untaught in the school system.
“We want to make sure we educate kids while they are still very young, so they can soak in the information and build life-long habits and even influence their parents,” explains Haile.
She comments on how children often see commercials selling unhealthy food and beverages while watching cartoons on TV, and then demand those from their parents when they go grocery shopping. Her goal is to raise their awareness of healthy and delicious whole foods so they will in turn influence their parents’ grocery shopping decisions.
A popular workshop she conducts around the country is “Sugar Shockers,” in which she shows children the high amount of sugar in soft drinks and then makes smoothies afterwards as healthy alternatives. “It’s been really beneficial to the kids,” she says. “It inspires them and their parents to want to make better beverage choices, and get into the kitchen more.”
Haile and her mother not only travel around the country but also internationally to spread the message of healthy eating. They have so far traveled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Their next stop is Jamaica, where Haile’s parents hail from. They will be attending a health festival and educating children about healthy eating.
While frequent traveling can be stressful, Haile celebrates the opportunity to connect with and inspire other children, and she craves more such opportunities in the future.
Over the past four years, as many as 8,000 children have benefited from Haile’s classes and summer camps.
How It All Began
About nine years ago, Haile’s father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The whole family was shocked—“not in the sense that he had a condition that runs in our family,” Haile recalls, “but ultimately it was finding out how detrimental our diet was to our health. We had a whole new awareness of the food industry, food labeling, factory farming, etc.”
Haile’s mother Charmaine took the initiative and was determined to find alternatives to medications because she realized all the “crazy” side effects and complications medications could have on her husband’s body. “She just went out and grabbed every health book, and we started watching documentaries together, cooking healthy recipes together,” says Haile.
“Eventually we realized that this was working! It was about educating ourselves on healthy choices. Finally, we were able to reverse my dad’s condition in about a year—without any medication. It was incredible! So, I just wanted to share the knowledge that we gained.”
So how does her father’s diet look? “He has cut down on the heavy sauces, gravies and a lot of white rice, which are common in the traditional Jamaican diet,” she explains. “We eliminated that and red meat. We eat lots of vegetables and superfoods. Every day, we make the portion of the vegetables bigger. Now we don’t eat anything but vegetables. But it’s enough to just cut down on the meat and rice. Vegetables and exercise are very helpful. It’s really not that complicated.”
Notice Haile uses “we” when talking about the lifestyle changes. Apparently, it was a concerted effort by the entire family from the start. When her father needed to change his diet, the whole family rallied behind him.
It wasn’t a difficult shift for Haile, since her mother started teaching her how to cook when she was only 5. “It’s really important to learn to take care of your body and I learned early on how to do that by cooking in the kitchen,” says Charmaine.
“My grandmother taught me when I was around 8. I’m from Jamaica and the girls have to know how to cook. I have another daughter, Nia, who is 12. I have also taught her how to cook and she loves to cook, too. The three of us often cook together in the kitchen.”
With the help of such a strong family bond and passion in the kitchen, plus his own determination, it’s no wonder Haile’s father got well so quickly.
Inspirations and Role Models
Who are Haile’s inspirations? At the top of her list are her parents. “I always want to make them proud, while making sure that I’m being myself and putting out what they have taught me into the world.”
Besides her parents, different plant-based chefs have also given her a lot of creative inspirations.
And then there is Former First Lady Michelle Obama. When she mentioned her, her eyes lit up: “She is such a great inspiration for me as she has been working in the health field and is so incredibly empowering to others.”
Oprah is also a huge inspiration for her: “She is somebody who has worked so hard to get to where she is now… to stay where she is for so long and at the same time inspire others to find their paths.”
The Path of a Young Vegan Chef
One seldom hears a 16-year-old finding and knowing her path with such clarity. But with Haile, she definitely has found hers. Today, she is dedicated to being the youngest and most successful vegan chef in the world, and to use her platform to motivate and inspire others to pursue their passions at any age.
How did she turn vegan in the first place? Many years ago, she was introduced to this concept but at first it didn’t “click.” Then about three years ago she watched several powerful documentaries about factory farming, and ones that very clearly explained the health, environmental, and ethical aspects of eating a plant-based diet.
“Halfway in my journey as a health activist, I started to resonate with this concept a lot more. I realized that if I want to educate people on this issue, I have to practice it myself,” she says. “I realized that if you eat meat, it can turn on cancer genes. I learned about all this disgusting stuff about factory farmed meat and dairy products, and just how much it often works to reduce our health and vitality. I wanted to be the best example I can be. So it just seemed natural for me to try it out.”
As she started out on her forage into veganism, she challenged her parents to go along with her program for a few months. “It was September and we decided to do it until the end of the year,” she recounts. “At first it was a little bit hard. My dad always said he wanted to have some ‘good’ jerk chicken on Thanksgiving. But came Thanksgiving, and he never did that. We ended up having a wonderful vegan Thanksgiving feast.”
Haile said that one key motivating force that has kept the whole family steadfast in maintaining their vegan lifestyle is their awareness of the effects of meat and dairy on their health. “It’s not only helping the environment but, if you believe in karma, it’s the karma of the animals and having this clean energy inside our body is really important. It just makes me feel so much better.”
Having the whole family on board definitely helps. But, Haile says, “sometimes you have to accept that everybody is on their own path. So even if the rest of the family is not doing it with me, I still would’ve tried. In talking with teenagers, I find that they often don’t necessarily have the family’s support in eating a healthier diet. So, you must be strong for yourself if you want to improve your health. But of course, family support goes a long way.”
How does being in so much limelight at such a young age feel?
“For me, it’s really great that I’m able to reach out to such a big audience.
At the end of the day, it’s about empowering and educating people. Hopefully, through these [media] platforms, I’ll be able to inspire other people with my passion,” says Haile.
She is aware of how much she has managed to accomplish in such a short time. “I always joke and ask, ‘What am I going to do when I get too old?'”
Joking aside, she has a great vision for what she wants to accomplish in the future.
“I definitely want to travel with my message a lot more,” she says.
She is also going to be appearing in a lifestyle show on a new YouTube network, in which she will be cooking and showing her daily life. Other currently confidential projects are also in the works.
In addition, she would like to study nutrigenomics in the future to gain knowledge about the way epigenetics influences health.
It has been predicted that this generation of youngsters will be the first who will live a life shorter than their parents due to the many chronic diseases they are increasingly suffering from, such as diabetes and obesity. That’s the reason why Haile believes so strongly in the mission of making sure those who have limited access to plant-based nutrition and culinary education are educated about healthy ways of eating.
Haile’s approach is to lovingly encourage children to try as many kinds of vegetables as possible. “Even if they ultimately don’t like them, at least they have tried them,” she says.
In addition, by teaching them how to read food labels, cook more at home and become more aware of what they are eating, Haile is giving them the option to prevent diseases and ailments down the road.
And it is not just the children who benefit from her educational efforts. When they bring their knowledge back home, children inspire their family members to eat more healthily. As a result, adults see improvements in their health as well.
“Just having one kid educated has a ripple effect on the whole family in getting healthier,” Haile says.
From her wide smile, one can tell that she derives tremendous fulfillment from having created this ripple effect.
This article, written by yours truly, Louisa the “Eat Right Chef,” was originally published on Change Food, a grassroots movement creating a healthy, equitable food system. To learn more, visit ChangeFood.org.
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