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Teens try to change the world, one purchase at a time

Youths 'vote' for fair trade, conservation, and natural foods with their dollars - but convenience is also a consideration

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2006


When classes adjourn here at the Fayerweather Street School, eighth-graders ignore the mall down the street and go straight to the place they consider much cooler: the local natural-foods grocer.

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There they gather in groups of 10 or more sometimes, smitten by a marketing atmosphere that links attractiveness to eating well. And when time comes to buy something even as small as a chocolate treat, they feel good knowing a farmer somewhere probably received a good price.

"Food is something you need to stay alive," says eighth-grader Emma Lewis. "Paying farmers well is really important because if we didn't have any [unprocessed] food, we'd all be living on Twinkies."

Eating morally, as some describe it, is becoming a priority for teenagers as well as adults in their early 20s. What began a decade ago as a concern on college campuses to shun clothing made in overseas sweatshops has given birth to a parallel phenomenon in the food and beverage industries. Here, youthful shoppers are leveraging their dollars in a bid to reduce pesticide usage, limit deforestation, and make sure farmers aren't left with a pittance on payday.

Once again, college campuses are setting the pace. Students at 30 colleges have helped persuade administrators to make sure all cafeteria coffee comes with a "Fair Trade" label, which means bean pickers in Latin America and Africa were paid higher than the going rates. Their peers on another 300 campuses are pushing to follow suit, according to Students United for Fair Trade in Washington, D.C.

Coffee is just the beginning. Bon Appétit, an institutional food-service provider based in Palo Alto, Calif., relies on organic and locally grown produce. In each year since 2001, more than 25 colleges have asked the company to bid on their food-service contracts. Though Bon Appétit intentionally limits its growth, its collegiate client list has grown from 58 to 71 in that period.

"It's really just been in the last five years that we've seen students become concerned with where their food was coming from," says Maisie Ganzler, Bon Appétit's director of strategic initiatives. "Prior to that, students were excited to be getting sugared cereal."

To reach a younger set that often doesn't drink coffee, Fair Trade importer Equal Exchange rolled out a line of cocoa in 2003 and chocolate bars in 2004. Profits in both sectors have justified the project, says Equal Exchange co-president Rob Everts. What's more, dozens of schools have contacted the firm to use its products in fundraisers and as classroom teaching tools.

"Kids often are the ones who agitate in the family" for recycling and other eco-friendly practices, Mr. Everts says. "So it's a ripe audience."

Concerns of today's youthful food shoppers seem to reflect in some ways the idealism that inspired prior generations to join boycotts in solidarity with farm workers. But today's efforts are distinct in that youthful consumers say they don't want to make sacrifices. They want high-quality, competitively priced goods that don't require exploitation of workers or the environment. They'll gladly reward companies that deliver.

One activist who shares this sentiment and hears it repeatedly from her peers is Summer Rayne Oakes, a recent college graduate and fashion model who promotes stylish Fair Trade clothing.

"I'm not going to buy something that can't stand on its own or looks bad just because it's socially responsible," Ms. Oakes says. "My generation has come to terms with the fact that we're all consumers, and we all buy something.... So if I do have to buy [food], what are the consequences? Who am I affecting on the planet? What am I affecting on the planet?"