David grew up in a low-income neighborhood where the school food was so bad that he and his friends would often go all day without eating and spend whatever little money they had on fast food after the last bell rang. When his family later moved to a nearby affluent suburb, he was shocked by the disparities between his two communities—how access to healthy foods in the inner city was so devastatingly low, and the diabetes rates so high. David created The Real Food Challenge to shift $1 billion of college food purchases toward local, sustainable, humane and fair trade sources by 2020. To date, over 35,000 students have taken part, and David and his team have trained over 1,700 student leaders at over 300 schools, all working together to build a healthy, fair, and green food economy.
DoSomething.org asked David some questions about his experiences with The Real Food Challenge, along with what inspires him and the lessons that he's learned on the road.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?
David Schwartz: I felt sick to my stomach. I felt helpless. It’s crazy to think that food—something that’s supposed to make us happy, healthy and strong—is now a huge part of the health, climate and economic crises in our country.
DS.org: How do you feel about it now?
DS: I feel truly inspired and hopeful. Ever since I was 14 I’ve been working for real food. I’ve worked in soup kitchens, farmers markets, urban gardens and rural farms. Now I work with thousands of young leaders around the country. All along the way, I’ve met hundreds amazing people who care deeply about this issue. I feel hopeful because I know that if we act together, we have the power to make a real difference.
DS.org: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
DS: I remember the moment when the Real Food Challenge was born. I was at a 3-day event with tons of other amazing changemakers—students, teachers and community leaders. Everyone was talking about how to support family farmers and provide real food to kids. I was so inspired!
The last night I was there I couldn’t sleep. Instead of goofing off with my friends, I found some of the other young activists and ended up talking with them way past midnight. After hours of discussing all the problems we saw, we’d gotten nowhere. Then a famous June Jordan quote I’d heard came to mind: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I realized that we couldn’t wait all our lives for someone else to take action—each of us has to stand up and be a leader ourselves.
DS.org: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
DS: I’m constantly inspired by all the other young people I get to work with—each one has an important story to tell the world. Like Alex: he grew up rural Washington State. His father lost his farm and ended up working in meat factories. Alex’s brothers both went into the military and served bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alex was going to do the same until he got inspired to serve his country in a different way—by joining the real food movement. Now he’s working with the Real Food Challenge to make sure that his school serves food that is healthy, fair, and green and that farmers, like his dad, can continue to work the land with dignity.
DS.org: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
DS: About a year after I started the Real Food Challenge, I had an incredible conversation with a local farmer who grew apples. Super tasty apples! Just one year before, this farmer was considering going out of business because he couldn’t make ends meet. But because of our work, we got him selling his apples to a local university and then to two low-income elementary schools districts nearby! Instead of losing his farm, he stayed in business AND was able to help thousands of local school children. In a city where the obesity epidemic is spreading, now every one of those kids gets to eat healthy, fresh fruit every day!
DS.org: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
DS: Getting people to take action, or think about an issue in a way that’s new for them is never easy. Early on, we had a hard time getting people interested in making social change through school food. We had to come up with fun creative ways to get people excited about the issue. But then, once those ideas caught on, we had the opposite problem—tons of new people got excited and wanted to get to work, and we had to figure out new to manage all that interest!
DS.org: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
DS: All social change starts with individual relationships. The most fundamental action we can take is to simply reach out and inspire someone—to get someone engaged and excited about making the world a better place. Whether your project is really big or really small, building an honest connection with another person is the most important building block.
DS.org: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
DS: Food is a powerful tool for connecting with so many different types of people! From inner-city moms who want to feed their kids right, to immigrant farm workers in the south who pick our food, to corn growers in the Midwest who drive huge tractors. Regardless of where we come from or what culture you belong to, everybody eats! And that’s a great place to find common ground.
DS.org: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
DS: Stick with it! Don’t give up. As long as you feel that passion in your heart, you’re moving in the right direction! The most important thing is to find an issue you care about work with a team of people you trust and respect.
And remember—there’s something to learn from every experience, no matter how tough it feels. Some of my best ideas came from something that felt like a failure at first.
DS.org: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
DS: Take more photos and video! I would’ve made sure to document our work at every step of the journey. It’s really true that a picture speaks a thousand words—and you never know what memories you might want to hold on to.
DS.org: What’s next for your project?
DS: We want every school in America to make a Real Food Declaration. Could yours be next? This year we’ll be putting on some amazing leadership trainings and youth summits in addition to visiting schools all over the country! Get ready!
We’re also launching an exciting awards program of our own—to recognize the best student activists, farmers and local leaders who are making change in their communities.
Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
DS: Matt Damon! Growing up in Boston, I always looked up to Matt Damon as a real hero. From Good Will Hunting to the Bourne Supremacy, Matt always stuck to his values despite the challenges of a tough neighborhood, lack of education access, or government assassins! Now, with everything he’s done in real life to provide safe drinking water to people around the globe, I feel doubly inspired.
Check out more information on all of our Do Something Awards Finalists, and vote now for your favorite.