Youth engagement provides young people with the opportunity to develop leadership skills and address challenges they face head-on in their own communities. For the past three years, National Health Foundation’s Health Academy has been working alongside youth from Historic South Central Los Angeles to address upstream barriers to healthy weight such as access to healthy food in their community. NHF Health Academy’s “Legion of Health” youth team is one of four teams in the program that engaged in youth participatory action research to identify issues impacting access to healthy food and food waste and develop and implement solutions to tackle those barriers. Here is one example of their success.
In the fall of 2014, Los Angeles Unified School District implemented Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC), a program that enables students to eat breakfast provided by the school in their classrooms rather than before they get to school. This was especially important at Thomas Jefferson High School where the surrounding community is labeled a food desert1 and access to healthy foods is an extreme challenge. Living in a “food desert” means that at least one third of the residents live more than one mile from a grocery store and in a dense urban environment, that is a significant barrier. In addition, those grocery stores serve significantly more people than in areas with better access. A 2010 Community Health Councils report indicated that South Los Angeles’s 60 full-service grocery stores serve approximately 22,156 residents each. In comparison, West LA’s 57 grocery stores each serve approximately half the number of residents. Layer onto this story the fact that 60% of South Los Angeles eateries are fast food restaurants. Clearly, BIC was an essential program providing increased access to fresh, healthy foods and students needed to take greater advantage of this opportunity. Within these statistics, the Legion of Health youth team saw an opportunity to make real impact.
As the Legion of Health team investigated the BIC program, they discovered that one of the unintended consequences was an increase in food waste, specifically the fruit accompanying the breakfast meal. A meeting and tour of the cafeteria with the Cafeteria Manager gave the youth real insight into the actual volume of food waste. The youth team began re-envisioning the BIC program as a way to encourage consumption by recovering the food and offering it as a snack to students throughout the day. This option would reducing food waste and minimize cost of healthy snacks. Legion of Health developed a pilot project to provide healthy snacks throughout the day at no cost to students by saving the surplus of fruit and/or non-perishable food items from the BIC program. Youth placed decorative baskets in classrooms and set uneaten food from BIC into the basket. Legion of Health named their project “Health Academy Mini-Farm Stand” and designed baskets to hold the fruit in classrooms. Legion of Health partnered with several of their high school teachers to implement the pilot project in select classrooms. Youth also developed a tracking system to record the number of students that grabbed a snack. Legion of Health hypothesized that students would consume all the items by the end of each school day.
The project findings proved the Legion of Health’s hypothesis to be correct: all food from the farm stand baskets were consumed by the end of each school day. Legion of Health presented these findings to school administration and advocated for school-wide implementation. School leaders agreed to implement the project school-wide so that every classroom would have a “Health Academy Mini-Farm Stand” basket and students would have access to healthy food anytime of the school day in any classroom on campus. Since school-wide implementation, the Cafeteria Manager is reporting a near complete reduction of food waste from BIC.
Legion of Health recently expanded the “Health Academy Mini-Farm Stand” project to Nava College Prep Academy. Legion of Health presented the benefits of the baskets to students and staff along with delivering baskets to each of the classrooms. This past school year, Legion of Health met with Laura Benavides Co-Director of LAUSD Food Services who applauded the youth’s efforts. In the coming year, Health Academy’s Legion of Health will seek out partnerships at other schools to expand the program in hopes of ultimately meeting with the LAUSD School Board to advocate for district-wide implementation.
 ‘Free and Reduced Meal,’ Analysis, Measurement, & Accountability Reporting Division. California Department of Education, 2013; http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/cpns/Documents/SNAP-Ed%20FFY%2015%20Att%201%20FRPM%202013%2005%2024.pdf