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Feature Fri Feb 18 2011
Food deserts, or city neighborhoods with a lack of healthy, affordable food, have captured the hearts and attention of food writers, public policy professionals, and even mayoral candidates. Rahm Emanuel plans to gather grocery executives to address the issue in Chicago--if he becomes mayor.
One of the groups working to bring grocery stores and farmers markets to people in underserved communities is the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council. Part of the CFPAC's mission is to engage young people, who are often enticed--in every neighborhood--to fill their bellies with readily available and attractively packaged snacks loaded with salt, sugar and fat.
If teens can convince teens to change eating habits, it might help to stem the national epidemics of obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
Laurell Sims, who is the youth coordinator for Growing Green and active with CFPAC, had the idea for the Chicago Youth Food Policy Council about a year ago. Sims says she knows a lot of kids who are interested in food policy and want to pursue it as a career. Her goal was to bring together different groups in the food policy community and allow the kids to meet other mentors. Actually launching the council and recruiting teens, Sims says, "was a community effort, interrupted by busy schedules and a summer farming season."
The Youth Council had their first meeting last week. About 20 kids attended, and Sims expects the numbers to grow.
The turnout was diverse. Besides young people interested in making more food available to more people, there were two students from Whitney Young High School who are working on a research project on genetically modified foods and a few students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.
For the first meeting, Sims put questions on the walls around the room to prompt discussion. Among the questions asked were: What food policies would you like to change in your community? What kinds of foods are available at your school? ("Greasy foods," "gross foods" and "nasty pizza.") How could your community's food system be improved? "It's up to the kids to decide what we do," Sims says. They want to combine policy discussions with active projects. Preliminary projects they talked about include starting aquaponic farms, creating a local-food "conveyor belt," increasing Link benefits at farmstands and getting better food into schools.
In the meantime, the youth council has partnered with Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based advocacy group, for a Value the Meal campaign. The council's website links to a letter to McDonald's (that anyone can sign and send), asking the company to stop advertising to and preying on young consumers. The campaign's fact sheet is full of grim statistics about how far some kids have to travel to school, but how close and plentiful fast food is.
The statistics don't speak as loud as most kids do. Go into any fast food restaurant in the afternoon. I live in a neighborhood with access to all sorts of food options. And, yet, when school gets out, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts fill up with kids, even though there are healthy salad and yogurt shops on the same street. That's because a growing 14-year-old can satiate his hunger with four McDoubles for $4.
McDonald's also fills up because kids need somewhere to relax with friends. "One of the things that was universally talked about was creating a place to hang out in their neighborhoods," Sims says. So, in addition to planning for farms and farmstands, the group also discussed the creation of "treehouses"--or places in the neighborhood where they'd hang out, maybe take cooking classes and, more importantly, find (or make) after-school snacks that won't take years off their lives.