Teens Learn To Fight for Good Food
By Natelegé Whaley
Web infotk.com

Did you know that almost one-third of New York City public high school students are either overweight or obese? There are many reasons-lack of exercise, overeating, but a big one is that in poor neighborhoods, healthy, nutritious food isn't always readily available.

When I go to "white" neighborhoods like Park Slope, I see stores with healthy food choices and cafes where people can mingle and eat outside on nice summer days.

But in lower-income neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, when I walk into a local corner store, I see shelves stacked with chips, candy bars and cookies.

It seems like people in my neighborhood accept the idea that junk food is the normal thing to eat, and that healthy food is "white food." But b-healthy!, a New York City-based health awareness organization, wants to change this perception, starting with teens.

Peanuts Instead of Skittles

b-healthy! is a training program that works with teens at The Door, a youth development agency in Manhattan. Teens attend workshops on health and nutrition; learn about alternatives to junk food and fast food, and master basic cooking techniques.

Ronny Sedura, 16, of Norman Thomas HS, said he decided to attend b-health’s CHOP (Creating Healthy Organic Power) Project two years ago because he plays baseball and wants to stay healthy.

He says he's learned a lot about health and nutrition and he's started to pay more attention to how fast food affects him. "If you eat at McDonald's you feel more down," he explained. "If you eat a home-cooked meal, you feel more alive, and have more energy."

He hasn't completely cut out McDonald's-he admits he still eats the fries. But he's made some changes in his diet, including drinking vitamin water instead of soda, snacking on peanuts instead of Skittles, and eating more home-cooked meals instead of fast food.

Health Food Too Expensive?

After two years at b-healthy!, Ronny says he's noticed the change in his body and his baseball game. "I was fatter," he said. "I couldn't run around the field and now I can run a lot."

But Ronny said that while he's making better food choices, other people in his community haven't gotten there yet. "In Washington Heights where I live there are two health food stores," he said. "They don't go because the prices are high."

Some people might argue that organic, healthy food is too expensive and that they can't afford it. I used to think the same thing. But after I talked to Elizabeth Johnson and Ludie Minaya, the coordinators of b-health’s CHOP projects, my opinion changed. They say the amount you're willing to spend on food is often a matter of priorities.

"People's values are messed up," Ludie said. "People spend more money on their cars than their bodies."

Carrots, Not Cadillac’s

I had to agree. There's nothing wrong with wanting some McDonald's once in awhile. But I always see people driving Cadillac’s into a Wendy's. That makes no sense. If they're willing to spend their money on a fancy car, there's no excuse not to buy better food for themselves and their families.

"In the way that you spend your money you're making a political choice," Elizabeth said. She explained that by spending your money on healthier foods and not fast food, you're showing that you want the best fresh food.

And healthy food isn't as expensive or hard to find as you might think. You can go to your nearest farmer's market or join a CSA [See sidebars below].

Elizabeth pointed out that fast food restaurants try to convince people that good food is expensive and fast food is cheap.
But she says you shouldn't believe it. Buying fresh foods at a grocery store, CSA or farmer's market is actually a better bargain. You might spend about $25 for a family of 4 at McDonald's, Elizabeth explained. But if you go to the grocery store and spend about $75, the food will last longer, since you can prepare multiple meals from it.

Food Choice and Disease

Food choices can affect an entire community's health. African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are two to three times more likely to get type two diabetes than whites, and it's on the rise in children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The condition is linked to obesity, so if people began making healthier food choices they might lower their chances of getting it. "Don't think it's normal to grow up waiting to get [type 2] diabetes," said Ludie.

Now that I understand how eating fast food can affect how healthy I'll be when I'm older, I've cut back on it. By eating healthy meals my mom prepares at home, I've saved money and I have more energy.

And no matter how much healthy food may cost, I can't put a price limit on food that's good for my body. Like Ludie said, "Once you start to think, 'This [fast] food is poisoning my mind, spirit, body,' you realize in the long-run it's worth it to take the time to make good food."