Eleven young food activists sang about hope as they walked into a room inside the Dole Institute of Politics on Friday afternoon.
They are on a 12-day Food and Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Ala., to Detroit. They stopped in Lawrence on the sixth day of their journey to talk about food injustices and the benefits of eating locally grown foods.
“I’m looking for food freedom,” said Hai Vo, one of the riders from Orange County, Calif. “We live in a country and world in which our industrialized food system is hurting ourselves and the health of our environment.”
The riders are part of Live Real, an organization of young people from across the country who want to create a food system that makes “real food the norm — not the exception.”
The group also is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when civil rights activists rode buses throughout the South to challenge discrimination. Those riders were beaten and arrested, but they inspired others to follow in their footsteps and become involved in the civil rights movement.
Bumps along the road
Fifty years later, these riders are hoping to inspire others to act, and they’ve run into their own problems along the way.
Courtney Oats, 20, wasn’t sure if she would make the trip after being arrested last weekend in her hometown of Eupora, Miss., which has a population of 2,300. She was followed home by police after posting fliers about the Food and Freedom Ride and a community garden groundbreaking celebration. That incident blew up into a heated exchange involving teenagers who were defending her cause and more police officers. They arrested Oats for disorderly conduct.
“They just wanted to prove a point or scare me,” she said.
She made bail, and the Food and Freedom Riders showed up Monday to break ground on a small community garden at her mother’s office building. Oats said she had planted a community garden before that was producing vegetables, but it was destroyed.
She’s hopeful that this one will flourish.
“Our community needs healthy, fresh food,” she said.
Oats said the small town only has convenience stores and a fast-food restaurant. Mississippi has the highest obesity rate, and Oats said it shows.
“The kids are eating frozen foods and anything they can throw on top of a McDonald’s hamburger,” she said. “We don't have healthy foods.”
Thursday night, the group stopped in St. Louis at the headquarters of Monsanto Co., an agriculture biotechnology corporation. They wanted to perform a seed ceremony and share their mission with passersby. As soon as they brought out the seeds, instruments and a “We the Youth” banner, five police cars drove up.
Vo said they performed the ceremony without incident. When a police officer asked for a name, they said, “Live Real.”
Vo knows first-hand the importance of eating healthy. At age 18, he weighed 250 pounds. He said he grew up eating processed breakfasts and lunches in school and then ate unhealthy Vietnamese food at home. Two months before high school graduation, he saw a video of himself.
“I thought, ‘Who is that person?’” he said. “That day was the turning point.”
The next day he went to a doctor who ran tests and found out he had type 2 diabetes. The doctor told him that if he continued to eat and live in the same way, he would live to only age 30.
He’s now a healthy, fit 24-year-old. He cut out sodas, sugars and carbs. He started eating traditional Vietnamese foods — bone broth soups, grains and greens. He also doesn’t eat as much.
“It’s a mindset of knowing what our needs are without overstuffing ourselves,” he said.
The Food and Freedom riders also visited Haskell Indian Nations University before heading to a reservation in White Cloud, Kan. Then, it was on to Iowa.
There were about 25 people at the Dole Institute presentation. Among the attendees were state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence. She said she came from a conference in San Antonio where 150 lawmakers were talking about growing food to share among neighbors. The group applauded.
Ocoee Miller, a rural Lawrence gardener, praised the Food and Freedom riders and said they give her hope for the future.
“I think this is just terribly important,” she said. “If we are going to be functional as human beings, we have to eat well, and in order to eat well we are going to have to eat real food — not plastic, phony, pretend, microwaved food. I think most of our health problems would go away if we were eating real food.”