When policymakers, advocates and experts get together to discuss ways to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, they offer an eclectic mix of perspectives and ideas on how best to solve the crisis.
But there’s usually one thing missing: the kids.
In North Carolina, the team behind a much-touted program that got young people involved in anti-tobacco campaigning is now applying their techniques to bring youth into the effort to end childhood obesity. Youth Empowered Solutions’ (YES!) two-year old program, Healthy Vessels, offers high schoolers the training, resources and tools they need to raise awareness about obesity issues and effect policy change in their communities.
"Young people become stakeholders in their community, and I see this as an amazing opportunity for the state of North Carolina or other states as well, to really capitalize on the capacity of these young people," says Katie Spears, the (grownup) program director of Healthy Vessels. "They will be the ones that will eventually take over, and it’s not so much the concept of, ‘the children are the future,’ because they’re present now."
Healthy Vessels began in 2009, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave YES! a grant to launch the program in five rural North Carolina counties. (Full disclosure: PreventObesity.net is a project of RWJF.) Young people began by working with faith-based communities to raise awareness about fitness and nutrition, carry out local advocacy work, push for policy changes that would help prevent obesity and provide training on the issues to others, Spears tells The Inside Track.
Healthy Vessels youth are paid staff, not just students looking to pick up a few extra community service hours to put on their college application. They spend time learning about childhood obesity, from its health implications to the reasons why it’s so prevalent, including things such as food deserts and a lack of safe places to play. The young staffers also are given media and advocacy training, where they gain the skills and tools needed to make an impact in their community.
Working in a team, the youngsters then decide what specific advocacy area they’d like to work on. One group worked with the town of Hamlet, N.C. to create safe places to walk, Spears recalls. Youngsters drew up a map featuring safe walking routes for community members, then began working with the town council to create other safe places through the installation of sidewalks, for example.
Another group, which calls itself "The Core," is made up of about 25 high school students who are working with the health department, school district and other key stakeholders in Mecklenburg County, N.C., to develop a "Healthy Weight, Healthy Child" action plan that will promote an active, healthy lifestyle in the community.
"That’s the thing, really allowing these youth groups to determine what the actual needs are in their community," Spears says. "They have to be at the decision-making tables. They’re experts in their communities… they have to have ownership with whatever they’re working on. We want them to be stakeholders."
Young people involved in YES! programs such as Healthy Vessels typically stay on until their high school graduation, and YES! keeps in touch with them after they head to college, Spears says. Students often go into health or social-related fields, and then to have "a more civic-minded approach in their day-to-day lives."
"They’re really big assets to have. That’s why we don’t let them go," she adds.
Spears and her colleagues are working with groups in other states to bring the Healthy Vessels program — now funded by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina — into new communities, and she’s optimistic that the young people will be able to reverse childhood obesity, especially judging by the reactions she gets when they meet with the adults in the room.
"They’re generally really shocked at how amazing these young people are, and the capacity they have to understand all these issues, and the frame they’re able to look through," Spears says. "Knock on wood, we have yet to run into the adult who is not blown away."