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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

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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.

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.


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