California Youth Swap Junk for Health at Bus Stations

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Salud Heroes
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What are you eating for lunch?

Snack food may be the quickest—and unhealthiest—choice.

In Santa Cruz County, California, a youth advocacy and leadership group called Jóvenes SANOS knew that their neighborhood needed to incorporate more healthy food options into daily life.

That means healthy food even at bus stations.

Health in San Cruz County

Latinos comprise about 81% of the 50,000 people who live in Watsonville, Calif., which is situated in Santa Cruz County.

Jóvenes SANOS, a youth advocacy group seeking to increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity for Watsonville youth through implementing long-term environmental policy and system change, understands that childhood obesity is a problem for Latinos.

“49% of Hispanics in this community…are likely to eat fast food 1 to 3 times a day,” said Rigo Perez, a member of Jóvenes SANOS.

One creative way to help curb this, they brainstormed, was to replace the unhealthy options at the community’s 4 METRO transit stations with healthier snacks.

Frequently used by kids and their families, the local public transportation service, Santa Cruz (SC) METRO transit stations hold opportunities ripe for change.

“We wanted to create a community with choices,” Perez said.

Junk Food at Bus Stations

The group browsed the internet and researched current policies on healthy food and beverages. They were inspired by healthy vending recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and San Diego Parks and Recreation’s healthy vending machine policy.

The youth also assessed the 4 facilities of the SC METRO, and identified what was currently being offered. The vending machines held the usual, unhealthy suspects: chips, cookies, candy, pork rinds, sodas, and energy drinks.

Not only were the vending machines an issue, but the small businesses inside the transit stations that sold bigger snacks like prepackaged sandwiches, soups, ice cream, and pastries were lacking healthier options.

The youth of Jóvenes SANOS knew their community deserved better.

The youth compiled all their research into an organized PowerPoint slideshow outlining the current problem, history, causes, key stakeholders, and alternative solutions to address unhealthy eating in the community and presented it at the next Jóvenes SANOS meeting.

After reviewing this information and weighing all their options, the youth decided that crafting a healthy food and beverage policy was the best way to increase the availability of local healthy foods.

Meeting with Community Leaders

With the idea for a healthy food policy at Metro stations and facilities in hand, the youth knew they needed to raise awareness about access to healthy foods.

They met with community leaders. They wrote letters asking for support from local city council members, the SC METRO Board of Directors, employees, and customers. When all stakeholders see benefits from a policy change, the change can really gain steam, the youth said.

The youth presented their policy proposal at a Santa Cruz Metro Board of Directors meeting on February 24, 2012.

The board of directors agreed that providing healthier options in their stations and in all vending machines was important, so they established a task force to move the policy forward.

Jóvenes SANOS followed up with task force members over the next few months, meeting several times to discuss policy ideas and ideals. Additionally, Jóvenes SANOS continued to meet with key stakeholders like Santa Cruz METRO Board Directors Daniel Dodge and Lynn Robinson to develop a healthy food and beverages policy outline.

The youth also worked with the small shop vendors themselves and asked them to consider following the nutritional standards recommended by the CDC and replace half of the food they sold with healthier choices.

A Policy Change

With the help of Dodge and Robinson, the youth group drafted the healthy food and beverages policy in May 2012. They were able to get on the agenda to present the policy to the SC METRO board later that summer.

The youth presented the policy for final approval at the Santa Cruz Metro Board meeting on August 24, 2012, with the recommendations of METRO staff to back them up.

The policy was approved that same day, August 24, 2012, by the Santa Cruz METRO board.

The official SC METRO ”Healthy Food and Beverage Policy” requires that 50% of vending machine options at all SC METRO offices and stations must meet the healthy nutrition standards recommended by the CDC.

As for the small food shops, they are encouraged to participate in the program by ensuring that 50% of snacks sold in their stores meet healthier standards, like have no more than 250 calories and reduced amounts of sodium, sugar, and fat. If the vendors are willing to offer at least 10 new healthy products for at least 6 months, the vendor will be recognized with a letter of compliance and as a “Santa Cruz METRO Healthy Vendor.”

There will be an awards ceremony and the media will be invited.

“I am very proud of our young people,” Dodge said. “They saw the problems kids their age faced with childhood obesity and family members with diabetes, noticed that the vendors around their schools were not providing healthy food alternatives, and decided to take action.”

Healthier Options Now at Bus Stations

Since the policy approval, all SC METRO vending machines are in compliance with the requirement to stock half of vending machines with healthy food options.

Some of the nutritious changes include various baked chips, nuts, coconut water, and a better granola bar selection.

Soda vending machines now include more water and sugar-free options. The snack shops are continuing to rethink what they serve the community and how they can incorporate healthier options.

SC METRO plans to revisit the policy in 3-6 months to fully evaluate its impact.

Partnering with METRO staff, the youth developed and distributed more than 300 “Avoiding Obesity Flyers” and “Healthy Choices Worksheets” as paycheck inserts for SC METRO staff to remind them about making healthier lifestyle choices every day. These flyers continue to be distributed twice a year.

To get METRO transit employees and the community excited for these new food options, Jóvenes SANOS is planning a “Snack-Fest.” Snack-Fest will take place at the Downtown Santa Cruz METRO Station in May 2013, and will feature games and samples of the nutritious foods available in local transit centers.

Angelica Sierra, another Jóvenes SANOS youth who helped develop the METRO vending policy, is confident about the lasting change this policy and ones to come can make. “[I hope] that the community is healthy for the future, not just now in this moment,” Sierra said.

The youth have taken on additional challenges to add healthier options in their neighborhoods, including encouraging local food businesses near their school to offer healthier options.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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