A 13-year-old Denver boy with a passion for good health and environmental sustainability is getting a reputation as the unlikely founder of a national movement to stamp out fast food.
Koa Halpern launched his organization, Fast Food Free, when he was just 10, following a school research project on the dangers of fast food.
He’s now home-schooled but at the time he was a student at the Challenge School, a magnet school for gifted students in the Cherry Creek district.
Armed with all the research that a gifted, philosophically committed child could lay his hands on, he set up a web site – www.fastfoodfree.org – and began his one-man crusade to get the world to examine its addiction to Big Macs, Whoppers and other fast-food creations.
Koa included information about animal cruelty, nutrition and obesity, and environmental degradation attributable to fast food. He started putting together regular newsletters on the topic. He began doing simple presentations to school and church groups.
Violin-playing funds his work
His parents, Roland and Marilyn Halpern, supported him in his passion but told him he’d have to pay for any expenses himself.
So the Suzuki-trained violinist took his fiddle down to the 16th Street Mall for some musical fund-raising. He’s raked in more than $2,000 that way – not bad wages for a 10-year-old.
He’s plowed all his earnings back into his company and he’s been able to cover his estimated $1,000 to $1,250 annual budget. His funding goal is to raise enough so he can apply for official 501(c)3 status, making gifts to his non-profit organization tax-deductible.
“You know how kids are,” said his mom. “In the beginning, we were reluctant because he was taking on fast food. I mean, that just seemed like such an endeavor. I was thinking, ‘Why can’t he just give some books to disadvantaged kids or something?’
“But when he learned more about the fast food industry, he said to me, ‘Mom, it’s not like I’m 78 and this is my only career option. I’m 10 and I better do this now before I become a high school student, because I have the time to do it now.’”
“Telling him to fund it himself really tempered the steel,” Marilyn Halpern said. “That made it more compelling for him.”
While other kids were out playing, Koa would devote himself to his organization, sometimes spending 10 to 15 hours a week researching, writing and marketing his ideas.
Yet few people took notice. This was, after all, little more than an elementary school science project run amok.
And then, last year, 5280 magazine did a little story about Koa and his crusade. Then came a little item about him in the Denver Post.
One thing led to another, and Koa was featured as one of eight “Kids Who Make a Difference” in the national Parenting magazine.
“Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper, who was already a star in the school nutrition world before taking over as nutrition director for Boulder Valley schools, named him a “Lunch Box Hero” last fall.
New Hope Natural Media, a Boulder-based promoter of organic and healthy-lifestyle publications and trade shows, invited him to speak at a national conference this spring in Anaheim, Calif.
Word of his organization has appeared in publications around the world.
Thousands have taken the pledge
The hits on his website have increased from a trickle to a deluge. And the number of people who’ve agreed to “take the pledge” – a modest promise to stay away from fast food for just two weeks – is now in the thousands.
At least 200 of those pledges came from nature lovers, after Fast Food Free agreed to give $1 to the Audubon Society of Greater Denver for every member who took the pledge last fall.
Koa promised Audubon members that foregoing fast food would help birds, whose habitat is destroyed to make way for fast food cattle farmland and paper hamburger wrappers.
“Initially, the pledge was for a month,” said Koa, a lifelong vegetarian who hasn’t visited a fast food restaurant since he was 4.
“But it seemed like everybody – especially the people who ate fast food to begin with – were extremely reluctant. But after we shortened it, then many of the people who ate fast food more often started taking the pledge. The whole venture was wildly successful.”
He figures that after just two weeks of going without, fast food addicts start to feel better, feel happier.
“So from then on, they’ll eat less fast food or even no fast food,” Koa said. “I’ve learned that it’s best not to do things like say, ‘You have to become a vegetarian for the rest of your life!’ No, it’s better to take small steps. Even little steps like just being a vegetarian for one day. Taking little steps can have an enormous impact on your health and on the health of the planet.”
Campaign is called ‘anti-American’
Koa has found that taking on the fast food industry doesn’t always make him popular.
Grandmother is tough critic
“She’s a really passionate advocate of eating fast food … She hasn’t taken the pledge and really, I don’t know at this point if she will.”
— Koa Halpern“I’ve discovered that people either love my non-profit or they hate it,” he said. “The ones who hate it say that some of the statistics I present are made up and such. They say my message is un-American because fast food is all-American. Really, many of their arguments don’t hold too much weight. But if there’s something that doesn’t seem to be too realistic, then I investigate that and check it out. So I know that my statistics are true.”
One of his toughest critics has been his grandmother.
“She’s a really passionate advocate of eating fast food,” Koa said. “She wishes I would change my mind with this fast food free business. However, in the last couple of months, she’s become much more supportive. She hasn’t taken the pledge and really, I don’t know at this point if she will.”
One of Koa’s biggest fans is Sue Deuber, principal of Voyager Public Charter School in Honolulu, where the boy attended kindergarten and first grade.
“From the very beginning, Koa was a unique child,” Deuber said. “His incredible intelligence and his unusual sense of social responsibility were evidence from the time he was 5. I remember him promoting donations to local charities in lieu of birthday presents and single-handedly holding mini fundraisers to support the school at school events. From his earliest days, Koa was making a difference.”
When Koa visited Hawaii in February, Deuber invited him to drop by his old school and speak to former classmates about his fast food project.
“His presentation was engaging, enlightening and presented in a way that was both informative and convincing,” Deuber said.
She was so impressed by what he said to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, she invited him back the next week to talk to the fourth- and fifth-graders: “His words had an effect on almost every student in the audience.”
Next campaign: ‘Try a Bite”
Koa’s next goal is to launch his new “Try a Bite” campaign.
“Try a Bite is going for just trying new healthier options, like organic food, locally-grown food,” he said.
He’ll take what he’s learned during his years promoting Fast Food Free and apply it to Try a Bite.
And he continues to educate his family. His folks raised him to be a vegetarian, but his commitment to healthy eating has gone far beyond what they envisioned.
“Last year, he asked us how come we were not involved in community-supported agriculture. I hadn’t even heard of that before,” Marilyn Halpern said. “So we joined a CSA. We got a single egg share and a fruit share. This year, we expanded to a vegetable share as well. Even in his family, he’s making us do small steps.”
“The latest thing he’s educated us on is genetically-modified foods,” she said. “He watches a lot of educational DVDs on this topic. I didn’t know anything about this, but he’s educated us about it.”
Halpern, a social worker, said she’s amazed by her son’s perseverance.
“We’ve said to him, ‘You can slow down.’ But he just feels compelled to carry on. I don’t know where he gets all that determination. It’s just something within him.”