Feeding the future education through recreationDanny Keith and Tanja Ross
When we turn to the evening news, we find ourselves inundated with stories of hopelessness. Images of mankind’s shortcomings and failures are all too prevalent—global warming, pollution, world hunger, war… Optimism is dead, the future of the human race is bleak, and so on. But there are those who are fighting these depressing odds. While there are those who would argue that children are weak and powerless, for Tanja Roos and Danny Keith, molding young minds is the only way to bring about radical change in the world today. They are changing the world, one child at a time.
“The main focus is empowering kids, teaching kids and educating kids about fighting hunger,” Danny Keith says, standing in the middle of an expanse of 3,000 square feet of indoor skate ramps, which makes up the headquarters of Grind Out Hunger in Santa Cruz. “We talk to kids about food justice, food literacy, the community aspect of when you don’t eat healthy, how that relates to BMI diseases for kids. Innumerable things are happening based on kids’ eating patterns. We can go after the parents and try to teach the parents or we can go to the kids and have it come up through the bottom, so that’s kind of our approach.”
For the past, 10 years, Keith and his band of hunger fighters have been educating kids in Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas about the importance of not only forming healthy eating habits but also ending hunger in their communities.
“We’re really trying to use the opportunity of bringing kids here and teaching them about fighting hunger and being philanthropic and being advocates for their community and making positive choices now and not waiting until they’re 18, 19, 20 to become involved in their community,” Keith explains. “We’ve got 7-year-old kids that are raising funds. Our question to them is what kind of community do you want to live in? We don’t tell the kids what to do; we ask them what they want to do to help. We provide that path for kids to have that opportunity.”
Partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County, Keith and his team go into schools and help raise awareness about hunger. Last year, their efforts raised over 300,000 meals. In an attempt to reach a wider audience and raise greater funds to help their cause, Keith has also collaborated with local celebrities like musical artists Chris Renee, James Durbin, and Royalty, as well as16-year-old pro snowboarder Marissa Hushaw.
“I owned Santa Cruz Surf and Skate Shop for 20 years, and they put a barrel in my store and started talking about kids going hungry, and that just didn’t sit well with me,” Keith recalls. “I just thought that no one really asks the action sports community to help. No one really asks musicians to help, unless they’re super top-end musicians. And there’s a lot of people who want to help, so we’re just getting into a demographic of people who have never really been asked to help but they’re huge community driven people.”
While Keith is busy in Santa Cruz helping kids to end hunger, Tanja Roos is busy in Carmel teaching kids the importance of making greener food choices. For the past decade, Roos and her nonprofit, MEarth, have been helping bring hope to the community of Carmel.
“The mission of MEarth is to educate and inspire through environmental stewardship, using this property but also leveraging our community partnerships and getting the community involved,” Roos explains, while walking out in 10 acres of vast organic gardens and native grasslands nestled in the heart of Carmel Valley. “The whole premise of what we do out here is to bring learning to life, you know, off the pages of a textbook and into the real world, making it really relevant and meaningful.”
Working with the Carmel Unified School District, Roos and her colleagues have created a special place where kids are able to actively learn and see the benefits of living a greener lifestyle. Using her passion for food, gardening and sustainability, she’s creatively woven together a curriculum that meets educational standards, while also reinforcing good lifestyle habits.
“Most of the things we remember are things that we are involved with,” Roos says. “Touching and doing. That’s the underlying philosophy of what we do. It’s interesting because these classes are meeting the class standards but also are very real in the sense that they teach them how to feed themselves in a healthy way. There’s a lot of layers of education that are beyond what can be measured in a test. We’re really trying to instill a sense of community, an appreciation of good healthy food, working together, communication all of these skills.
Working with the Spanish, French, and Chinese classes and teachers, Roos incorporates cultural cooking activities. Students cook crepes filled with organic fruit from heirloom fruit trees just yards away. They make tortillas from scratch, baked to perfection in the outdoor oven and topped with organic black beans they picked in the garden. She’s also created fun acronyms like FLOSS (Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonable, Sustainable) to help remind students what constitutes a greener food choice.
“It’s about introducing pieces of the culture through food and music,” Roos says, sitting in the LEED certified structure (complete with living roof, reclaimed wood, rainwater storage tanks, and bathroom walls made from old movie billboards). “We’re playing cultural music when we’re in here. We practice practical vocabulary skills so we learn all of the names of the ingredients that we’re using and the verbs: to mix, to chop, to wash.”
Using cooking and gardening as a venue to educate kids about making greener lifestyle choices, Roos has transformed traditional learning environments in Carmel and created active learning opportunities for students. In Santa Cruz, Keith has also found a currency that speaks to kids—action sports.
“We take that whole kind of enigma around action sports and we plunk it in the middle of something like [Grind out Hunger] where we’re taking food banking and making it cool, we’re taking feeding people and making it cool, we’re taking eating healthy foods and being a positive role model in your community and we’re making it cool,” Keith says, offset by a colorful backdrop of walls, covered in bright graffiti by local artists. “We’re not saying you shouldn’t do anything, we’re telling you what you should do.”
Growing up in Salinas, Keith witnessed hunger and poverty firsthand. However, Keith didn’t let his childhood define him. He fought to get out so that he could be a voice for those less fortunate. He wanted to make a difference—a source of hope and inspiration.
“I think the biggest thing is understanding that kids don’t choose to go hungry,” Keith says. “It’s a circumstance of their involvement and being brought in this world. You don’t pick your parents, you don’t pick your living conditions, and unfortunately, there’s not a lot of champions for kids when it comes to that. We’re not going to win them all but if we can moderately win a little bit bigger percentage of building successful humans, then maybe we won’t have a lot of issues that we have with addiction and gangs and everything else.”
500 kids actively participate in Keith’s program, which includes after school series like Flow—where children are provided with a safe environment, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Participants can also attend meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays, where they learn about making healthier eating habits and then they may skate for free afterwards (the usual fee is $3). Keith hopes that with continued education and growing awareness, this new generation will be the one to make a difference in the Santa Cruz community.
“We do this because we want to build a better community,” Keith says. “We’re looking for the future. I tell people all the time, the results that come out of this location and the funds that go into this mission support hundreds of thousands of meals that go to support food banks locally. Our byproduct is definitely feeding people but moreover it’s generating future communities full of driven philanthropists.”
Both Keith and Roos are also looking to the future. They’ve developed creative ways to educate today’s youth; empowering students to positively change their community in years to come.
“[MEarth] gives them a sense of inspiration,” Roos says. “That’s what we want to do. We wanted to model as many sustainable aspects, from growing your own food to green buildings to planting native plants in your home landscape rather than your lawn. We wanted people to feel empowered to go out and make change in their lives. Yeah, global problems are huge. They’re depressing. But I really do feel like building a community where everyone is working on a common goal, things shift.”
“Kids start off innocent,” Keith adds. “Kids start out moldable. Kids start off with opportunity. If we just continue to invest in that piece, whatever happened with their parents, whatever, people are byproducts of what they’re exposed to. If we can improve that exposure level, then eventually, we’ll turn out better people.”