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Recent NCHS grad wins national 4-H award for work addressing food insecurity and healthy habits

Panelists seated at forum
National 4-H Council
This file photo shows a talk during the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. From left, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Avani Rai, Joshua Williams and then Director of the Domestic Policy Council of the United States Susan Rice. This week, Rai, of Bloomington, has been named a recipient of the national 4-H Youth In Action Award.

Just a few months after starting her freshman year at Harvard University, Normal Community High School grad Avani Rai has more cause to celebrate.

The 4-H organization announced Monday that the 18-year-old from Bloomington — a longtime advocate of fighting hunger — is one of four U.S. teens being honored with the group’s 2024 Youth in Action Award.

Avani Rai
Avani Rai

Her work has focused on food insecurity at the community, state and national level, as well as boosting healthy habits for kids. As a Youth in Action winner, Rai earns a $5,000 college scholarship for her studies in economics and public policy at Harvard. In January, she’ll also begin a year gig as a 4-H spokesperson.

Rai said that’s a huge honor — getting to represent about 6 million 4-H'ers. And she’s looking forward to working with other youth “doing great, phenomenal, amazing things.”

Rai and her three fellow winners are “model examples of their generation — embodying a commitment to service, a love of their communities, and a passion for leadership that represent the best of 4-H,” wrote Jill Bramble, who heads the national youth development organization. They were selected from among 16 finalists.

WGLT caught up with Rai just before she headed to Washington D.C., where this week she joins those fellow winners from Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. There, they'll accept the awards as part of the annual National 4-H Week in Washington, D.C.

The trip marks a return to the nation’s capital for Rai, who previously took part in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. At that September 2022 event, she spoke on a panel alongside Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and then U.S. Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice.

That appearance on a national stage followed years of dedication to the food insecurity issue back home in McLean County, and directly ties to her work with 4-H, she said.

“Because of the work that I've been able to do through 4-H, I was able to tie in my passions of public policy and legislation," she said.

Food insecurity

“So my work with food insecurity in relation to 4-H really started as a member of the McLean County Hunger Ambassadors Team, and then eventually shifted upwards to the work that I've done with the Illinois state team statewide,” she said.

That led to her current appointment on the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Local Food Purchase Assistance Committee, a group tasked with allocating $14 million dollars of grant funding from the USDA to strengthen food systems in Illinois.

Along the way, as an Evans Junior High student, Rai was honored in Bloomington with a Youth for a Better Tomorrow YICU (Why I See You) award. That was for developing food pantries and other service.

Super yoga for kids

4-H leaders said another project that caught their eye was Rai’s efforts to boost healthy habits in kids.

As an NCHS senior, Rai developed a physical fitness unit for younger students. That project was part of her role in the school’s Future Business Leaders of America club. Tasked with creating a community service project, Rai suggested the club focus on healthy living.

“ I created a curriculum called Super Yoga, which was essentially an opportunity for elementary school students in Unit 5 to take advantage of yoga in a fun and exciting way,” she said.

“(Yoga) is a practice that allows you to strengthen your physical health as well as your mental and emotional health,” she said, adding about 1,300 kids took part in the program.

Rai credits her time in 4-H with helping her bring the idea to life: “That whole decision-making process of coming up with yoga and creating the lesson plan … was just a great example of how the skills that you learn within the organization, 4-H, can really expand far beyond that.”

She just stumbled onto 4-H, said Rai. But the eight years she's explored its offerings have proven a key part of her experience growing up in Bloomington-Normal.

A group of Benjamin Elementary students, in rows, pose for a photograph. Avani Rai stands behind them.
Avani Rai, back row, right, stands with a group of Benjamin Elementary School students during her Super Yoga project. That work, along with her dedication to fight hunger in America, has earned her a national 4-H Youth Award.

“Before I was introduced to 4-H my family didn't know about it. I didn't really have any friends in the program, I was completely new,” she said. But that soon changed, she said.

As a Benjamin Elementary student, she took part in a 4-H sponsored Lego robotics club, and then she was hooked.

“I took part in the McLean County Fair that following summer, came back as a teen teacher, continued to serve through the program, and eventually got involved with some state 4-H teams,” she said.

When her dad, Bhrama Rai, went to sign her up for the fair, he discovered they had a ton of other programs, she said. He signed her up for public speaking, which terrified her has a 10-year-old. But when she got on stage, she ended up really liking the program.

Focus on food insecurity continues at Harvard

Rai says it’s been a bit of culture shock arriving at the Ivy League campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But she calls her arrival at Harvard exciting.

“It's such a phenomenal place with so many really, really great peers, teachers, people to learn from, people to grow with. So I've been having a great time,” she said.

The Bloomington native is considering a career in law, and she expects food security to continue having a pivotal role.

Harvard has a Food Policy Clinic, a branch of Harvard Law School, which Rai is particularly interested in. “That works specifically to find avenues to address food insecurity through legislation and public policy changes. And that's a niche within the field of law that I'm very interested in continuing to pursue,” she said.

“Regardless of whether I eventually end up pursuing food policy as a career, or just go into law school in general, addressing food insecurity and fighting for change when it comes to food insecurity will always be a priority of mine,” she said.

The NCHS grad said the year ahead as a 4-H spokesperson gives her an opportunity to exercise leadership, communication and public service skills that 4-H has instilled in her. “And I think that those are the benefits, those soft skills, that are going to continue to impact me not just here at Harvard, but throughout the rest of my life,” she added.

Rai’s follows in the footsteps of other Illinois youth who have won the national 4-H award.

Last year’s scholarship recipients included Matias Habib of Sandwich. And closer to home, winners included Bloomington’s Dhruv Rebba in 2022, and Thad Hughes of Shirley in 2016.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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