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Teen healthy lifestyle advocate speaks to Garrettsville students

Urges children to learn about food, make more healthy choices

By Matthew Merchant | staff writer Published: September 22, 2016 4:00 AM
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More than a third of the students sitting in the James A. Garfield Elementary School gymnasium on Wednesday raised their hands when asked if they knew of someone with diabetes.

It's a growing concern for many generations of Americans, and one that started now-15-year-old Haile Thomas on her journey to become a healthy lifestyle advocate.

In April, Thomas was on NBC's "Today" show, talking about healthy eating habits, how she came to mingle with former presidents and celebrity chefs, and has helped inspire thousands to live healthier lives.

After seeing the segment, Gayle Gergely, a volunteer with the recently created Garrettsville YMCA, invited Thomas to talk with students and residents.

Known as "Hurricane Haile" to her family after making a mess in the kitchen, Thomas spent Wednesday with students at JAG telling her story and showing them how they too can lead healthy lifestyles.

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Her father was diagnosed with diabetes when she was a child, so the family started eating healthier and Thomas began a YouTube channel called Kids Can Cook with her younger sister.

"It was so much fun, making different foods and telling people about it. But after a few years I wanted to be more interactive and actually do some teaching," she said. That's when she joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation Youth Advisory Board, which focuses on childhood obesity.

Since that time, she's met with Sam Kass, former White House chef and executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, as well as Obama herself. Thomas serves on several other national nutrition boards as a youth representative.

"I saw a need to be present on these boards because they were making policy for kids with no input from kids," she said during her presentation.

While Kass might not have been a name the student recognized, they exclaimed when she showed them photos of celebrities she's met, including singer Rihanna, talk show host Dr. Oz and comedian Kevin Hart.

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"I always want to inspire kids no matter where they are to eat healthier and learn about their food. What made me want to come is there was a lack of this information here," she said.

Thomas gave two presentations to students, followed by small lab demonstrations. Later in the day, she spoke at the YMCA, discussing tips for getting children to eat healthier and live more active lifestyles.

During the lab sessions, which she called a "Sugar Shocker," Thomas had the student guess how much sugar was in popular drinks like Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Arizona Tea and Sprite. Not only is "sugar" listed as the second highest used ingredient in each, but there are multiple names for sugar like dextrose and sucralose.

"What is 'natural flavor?'" she asked the group, reading off the ingredients from the bottle.

"It's not natural at all," one student yelled out in response.

If children and adults alike want to each healthy, they have to start by knowing what they're eating, she said. There isn't an aisle for chemicals in the grocery store, but there are plenty of ingredients people can use to make their own food.

As an example, Thomas prepared smoothies using bananas, pumpkin, agave, nutmeg, cinnamon, soy milk, vanilla and ice. After blending them together and handing out small samples, many of the students said they'd try to make their own at home.

"Remember," Thomas said as the students left for their next class, "you guys have the power of choice to decide what you eat."

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1127 or mmerchant@recordpub.com

Twitter: @MattMerchantRC


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