This is a guest post from Brandon Truong, an ACE student from Fremont, CA
Ever since I can remember, I've loved food. Especially fast food. In fact, thanks to my appetite and my friends (thanks guys), I even have my very own Instagram hashtag appropriately named #brandoneating, with pictures of me chowing down on all kinds of greasy fast food. Now you’re probably wondering, “Why is he telling me all this?”
Well, let’s backtrack a little bit.
My family has never been the best financially, and combined with two parents who worked full time, they often didn’t have time to cook for me. So my parents turned to the most convenient option: fast food. I mean, what’s not to love about fast food? It’s cheap, convenient, tasty, and it saved my parents that long arduous trip to the grocery store. Well, what my parents and I didn't know at the time were the environmental and health costs that came with eating fast food.
By the time I reached high school, I was eating fast food upwards of 4 to 5 times a week. Seriously. Fast food restaurants basically became part of my daily routine, where my friends and I would hang out after school and during lunch (hence the Instagram hashtag). People always say that ignorance is bliss, and for most of my high school years, I was the poster boy for that saying.
All this changed after ACE visited my school.
You know those save the rainforest and water conservation assemblies that you might have had in either elementary or middle school? Well, like the majority of my peers I saw those assemblies as a great way to get out of class, or as an attempt from adults to grasp the roots of youth and educate them about different issues. Admittedly, it caught my attention for the moment, but in retrospect I can hardly remember a thing they said to me. But, when Wen Lee from ACE came to my school and gave an assembly about climate change, something… clicked.
At my school all seniors have to do a yearlong project about a social issue of our choice. After seeing the ACE assembly, I knew right then and there I wanted to do my project on climate change. When I heard ACE was hosting a Youth Action Lab the following month about the connection between climate change and food, well, of course I signed up to attend.
Ever get that feeling the night before the first day of school where you can’t sleep because you’re so excited to see all of your friends again after a long summer break? I felt the same way the night before the Youth Action Lab. Now normally, waking up at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning isn’t terribly exciting for most people my age, but when you are as curious as I was about what the Youth Action Lab was going to be like, you kinda shrug off sleep.
The next morning, I walked in the room to be greeted by over 30 students and adults from all over the San Francisco Bay Area. From there we did a ton of group activities, learned from guest speakers, and had discussions about how what we eat affects the climate. It was eye opening. For the first time, I realized that what I choose to eat has a huge impact on my health and the environment. I found out that fast food comes from industrial agriculture, which creates tons of waste and carbon pollution and makes climate change worse. I also learned that processed foods contain high levels of sugar and salt, which lead to many health issues in our society such as obesity and diabetes.
By the end of the workshop, I felt empowered and motivated. I decided to do my senior project on the impacts of food on climate change, and especially how it relates to low-income communities who have limited access to fresh food. I also decided to try to stop (!!!) eating fast food. It was really hard, but after everything I learned, I knew it was the right thing to do.
After weeks of extensive research and report writing, it was time to fulfill the community service requirement of my senior project. And ACE offered me an amazing opportunity: present with Wen at a local high school, and teach students about what I learned about food and climate.
Never did it cross my mind that, at my age, I would have the chance to co-present with ACE about my research to a school in the Bay Area. But, pushing that aside I was ready to take that opportunity, and a few weeks later, I got to present my findings to over 200 students and teachers at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Just like for the Youth Action Lab, I spent the entire night (actually two nights) before the assembly freaking out. I rehearsed what I was going to say over and over and over again until it was finally showtime.
At first, standing in front of all those students was absolutely terrifying, but after a couple minutes I calmed down a bit and was able to present reasonably well. Thankfully my audience was really awesome and listened intently. In retrospect, there was a lot of things I didn’t say then that I would have definitely said now, but overall I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I hope that by presenting what I learned in my research and sharing my personal story, I inspired the 200 students in the auditorium to change the way they look at food, even just a little.
It’s hard to believe that senior year ended so quickly. The entire year everyone kept asking me, "What do you want to do with your life?", and I'm pretty sure most people my age felt that same way as I did: unsure. But after working with ACE, and experiencing what it is like to educate people, I feel like my choice to major in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz is going to point me in the right direction.
These days, I've been working toward learning how to cook delicious meals for myself and my family. I am also happy to say that except for a few rare occasions (there was that one time time I craved nacho cheese, haha) I have been completely fast food-free for nearly 10 months! If you had told me a year ago that this was going to happen, I would have said you were crazy. Going from eating fast food nearly every day to cutting it out of my life has been a huge change for me, and it’s something I am very proud of.
Hopefully with what I learned with ACE, and what I will learn in college, I can continue to educate the public, and in the future make a difference in the lives of the people in my community and maybe even the world.
Brandon Truong is a graduate of Irvington High School in Fremont, CA. This fall he will be a freshman at UC Santa Cruz.