Standing 10 feet from Michelle Obama, the White House seal pegged to a podium between them, Haile Thomas seemed nervous. But she’d been to the Kids’ State Dinner before—last year, when she won Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge for her Quinoa, Black Bean, and Corn Salad recipe. This June, Haile traveled from Tucson to Washington, D.C., not to accept an award, but to introduce the First Lady to an audience that included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Epicurious editor-in-chief Tanya Steel and, later, President Barack Obama.
“I have had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with this young lady,” Michelle Obama said, thanking Haile for her introduction—one she pulled off without a flaw. “Every time I am with her, she is that poised, that gracious, that bright, that inspiring. Haile is an example for all of you, what your little powerful voices can do to change the world.”
And how. Haile is a youth advisory board member with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a junior chef consultant and youth spokesperson for Hyatt Hotels’ “For Kids By Kids” menu, the co-founder of her own HAPPY organization, which offers kids’ cooking classes, nutrition education, and physical activities—and she’s 12 years old.
Haile’s parents, Charmaine and Hugh Thomas, immigrated from their native Jamaica when they were teenagers; Haile’s cooking career began as she watched her mom make the staples she’d grown up eating—ox tail, curried goat, jerk chicken, foods that Haile still declares her favorites, both to cook and eat. Haile grew up watching her mom cook—and watching the Food Network, which was “always on,” says Charmaine—and, at some point, she started asking if she could help mix, stir, or chop.
“Many adults don’t see the kitchen as a place for kids. I think that’s a mistake,” says Charmaine. “When they can cook, they can take care of themselves.” This self-sufficiency was a value taught to Charmaine and her six sisters as they were growing up in Jamaica, where, she says, “everyone learns how to cook. Very rarely did we eat out.”
Inviting their kids into the kitchen was “a cultural and conscious decision,” says Hugh. In the kitchen, “they can learn where their food’s coming from, and the effort that goes into creating a meal.”
“Haile is an example for all of you, what your little powerful voices can do to change the world.” – Michelle Obama
Many of Haile’s favorite foods continue to be influenced by her parents’ Jamaican heritage, but today, she’s making them with a healthy spin, swapping bulgur for white rice or arranging curry shrimp in lettuce wraps. “I like making foods that are simple and fun to eat,” she says. How does she dream them up? “I just get in the kitchen, mix things up, and see what happens.”
When Haile was nine, she took a summer class with Girls Making Media, a Tucson non-profit run by independent filmmaker Quinn Elizabeth. Quinn noticed something in Haile and encouraged Charmaine to keep her in front of the camera. (The video Haile made was about literacy, not food; it begins as Haile sits, reading a book. “Oh!” she says, putting the book down and swinging her gaze toward the camera. “I didn’t notice you there.”) Kids Can Cook began that same summer, with Charmaine filming and Haile and her sister making recipes in their home kitchen.
At first, Haile was interested more in cooking than health. All that changed in 2011, when she joined the Alliance for a Healthy Generation’s Young Advisory Board. At the group’s orientation in California, Haile learned statistics about childhood obesity, about diabetes and heart disease. She returned to Tucson with her passion re-ignited, not just for food, but food’s effects.
That’s when Kids Can Cook really took off; that’s when Haile started the Healthy Girls Adventure Club at St. Gregory College Prepatory School; that’s when she organized the Healthy Eating, Active Lifestyle (HEAL) event with Tucson Village Farm and cooked a locally-sourced meal for the more than 80 people who showed up.
That same year, Haile was invited to speak at a TEDxKids event in Vancouver, British Colombia. On stage, after asserting her belief that “learning to cook is the most direct way to good health,” Haile switches gears: “Just listen to those diet commercials. When I hear the fast-talking person, speeding through all those side effects, I’m shocked that anyone buys those products!”
“That’s was the first time we knew she was serious,” says Hugh. “She doesn’t have any fear.”
When Haile was in fifth grade, she was invited to speak to a room full of seventh graders. “I was so nervous for her,” says Charmaine. “But when she started speaking, she just pulled them in. A month later, we got this huge stack of letters from these kids saying, ‘We learned from you that we can cook anything.’ They thought if an 11-year-old could stand in front of them to teach them cooking, they could just as well try it themselves.”
“These amazing opportunities are coming to her because of her voice,” Charmaine says. “Kids listen to kids.”
Which is exactly what motivates Haile—impacting the health of her peers. That impact is revealed not at state dinners at the White House, but in small anecdotes of habits changed. Kids who had previously subsisted on soft drinks and sugary juices coming up to Haile to tell her they now make smoothies every day. Parents reporting back that they’ve changed the brand of cereal they buy or started avoiding high fructose corn syrup.
Now in the seventh grade at St. Gregory—her favorite subject is ancient history—Haile notices her friends eating habits, and how they’re changing, gradually, with her influence. “Kids don’t just want to eat mac ‘n’ cheese and chicken nuggets,” she says. She should know, having designed a “For Kids By Kids” menu for Hyatt Hotels. “In our tastings, we found that kids like things that are interactive, fun, and flavorful,” Haile says. “They want to be involved in the process of eating and making food.”
Today, Haile’s dreaming up more than menus. “It had always been a dream of mine to make a health center for kids,” she says, so in 2012, Haile and Charmaine founded The HAPPY Organization “to engage, motivate and educate a healthier generation of kids.” In the summer of 2013, the mother-daughter duo partnered with the Tucson YWCA to offer weekly health, nutrition, and wellness classes for kids. Although, Charmaine says, increasingly, parents are sticking around to listen to Haile’s lessons. “We’ll often have 17 or 18 kids and 10 parents.”
“I had one parent come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know you could blend vegetables,’” Hugh says. “Another asked us to offer a program on how to eat healthy on food stamps and we’re working on that now,” Charmaine says. “Parents are getting it. They want to learn how to eat well and be healthy.”
Charmaine and Hugh got the health message loud and clear in 2009 when Hugh was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. They read books on how to reverse diabetes, changed their diets, and six months ago, Hugh received a clean bill of health. “I’m not even pre-diabetic,” he says. “All we did differently was change the way we ate.” Charmaine chimes in: “We thought we were eating healthy! You always do, until you learn something else.” Today, they say, Haile’s work motivates them to “stay healthy and walk the talk,” says Charmaine. “You’ve got a kid in your house that’s a health advocate, you’ve got to live up to that.”
After all that, what’s next? Well, there’s the top-secret project that Haile and Charmaine will launch in September. Long-term, Haile wants to go college to study nutrition. “I don’t want to be a chef. I think it’s important to know nutrition before anything else.” Studying nutrition, she says, will help her achieve her ultimate goal—“getting rid of childhood obesity as fast as possible.”
In August, Haile spoke at Deepak Chopra’s Sages + Scientists Symposium alongside such luminaries as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, civil rights activist Diane Nash, and the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington. “They put me at the Sages table,” Haile says, a hint of embarrassment inching across her cheeks. “I didn’t know I was all that.” ✜
Cook shrimp in pan until pink, season with salt and pepper. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together lime juice, oil, and sugar, until sugar dissolves. Dice mangoes and avocados into ¾ inch cubes; add to bowl. Add green onion, cilantro, chile, and shrimp. Mix gently. Serve or cover to chill for up to 1 hour.
In a large bowl, combine beans, corn, tomatoes, quinoa, onion and cilantro. Stir together. Gently stir in avocado. In a small bowl, whisk together oil and lemon juice. Pour over salad mixture. Serve immediately or let sit in refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving to enhance flavors.
This recipe won Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge in 2012.
Cook quinoa according to package directions. Add yogurt to a bowl and top with quinoa, fruit, and flaxseeds.
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.