When Haile Thomas was 8 years old, her dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
"The diagnosis kind of forced our entire family to look at food through a different lens," Thomas told In The Know. For the following year, the Thomas family prioritized making their lifestyle — especially their diets — as clean as possible. "That process over a year, combined with my dad getting super into soccer, he was able to completely reverse his condition in that year."
Even when her dad, Hugh, felt better, the family did not want to revert back to their old ways. Five years later, the family adopted a vegan diet.
"Eventually you start to adjust to kind of seeing that a plate full of vegetables is a real meal," Thomas said. "As long as you have that balance with different grains and proteins, then you're good to go."
Around the same time is when Thomas co-founded her nonprofit, The HAPPY Organization. "HAPPY is an acronym, it stands for happy, active, positive purposeful youth," Thomas told In The Know. She founded it to address the need for more affordable nutrition and culinary education in at-risk communities and schools.
According to their site, HAPPY aims to promote nutrition and food health classes to kids ages 8 to 12 years old. The organization hosts summer camps, school visits and tours to teach kids how to read food labels and how healthy foods can impact how they feel and think.
"I was confused why in school it wasn't mandatory for us to know what we were putting into our bodies, and how it affects us both physically and mentally," Thomas said. "Food education is incredibly important because that's where it's at — you can't function at your best or even try to reach that fullest potential without having proper fuel."
Thomas and her mom have been able to work with more than 40,000 kids over the last few years.
"The response has been fantastic, we just see kids really open up and have this lightbulb go off."
Thomas, now 18 years old, calls herself a health activist and is the youngest Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach in the U.S. But her journey is far from over, she still strives to make food education more common and a more core component of school curriculums.
"We are also working on a virtual academy to kind of translate all of this that we're working on and make it accessible to digitally," said Thomas. "Food accessibility is a major problem and every person deserves the opportunity to feel their bodies, and to not even have the chance to create a healthy life for yourself, I think is just, wrong."
The HAPPY Org also has a full Gen Z board of directors who are as inspired as Thomas is to make sure today's youth has the tools to build healthy habits.
"To be able to be that kind of entry point for others is just a really special thing."
Watch the full episode of In The Know: Next Gen above to learn more about Haile Thomas' journey.