March 9 is a Friday, a day when most youth are blowing off steam. But the 50 middle- and high-schoolers gathered at the Pyle Center in Madison are serious and attentive. They’re attending the orientation for the Youth Advocates for Community Health (YACH — pronounced like the animal).
An over-sized piece of white paper is stuck to the wall. A simple outline of a body is traced on it.
Marissa Lane, project assistant for FoodWIse, asks the group to write answers to the question, “What does it mean to you to be healthy?” on sticky notes. She prompts them to place their words near the paper body part they feel the concept relates to.
One youth places a sticky note that reads “sense of self” near the heart. “Manage stress” gets stuck near the head. “Balanced diet” finds a spot near the stomach.
Next, Lane asks them to think beyond individual health and consider the health of communities. She introduces the concept of social determinants of health — factors in people’s homes, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods that can promote or harm health. Lane later introduced attendees to a systems approach to problem solving, which focuses on positively affecting health by changing a community or neighborhood policy, system or environment.
These young people experience community health challenges firsthand. Many live in neighborhoods without affordable nutritious foods or safe places to exercise.
Youth take the wheel
This two-day orientation began a months-long process that will culminate with a youth-created community action plan. In the meantime, the groups of 4-10 team members will research local health and food environment data. They’ll also participate in community mapping exercises and interview key stakeholders. Teams focus on physical activity and nutrition projects for people with limited incomes, based on the priorities of its funder, the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).
Working with direct support from FoodWIse and 4-H staff and other community partners, the young people’s opinions are prioritized and supported. Adults facilitate by connecting teams to community experts and contributing content knowledge.
“YACH builds leadership skills and gets the next generation of kids concerned about finding systems solutions to complex issues, such as the obesity epidemic,” said Josset Gauley, FoodWIse evaluation specialist and one of the program’s coordinators.
By September, some YACH teams will implement their action plans. Others will pass along their plans — with unique youth perspectives — to adults in the community and Cooperative Extension staff for implementation.
After promising results last year in two pilot counties — Jackson and Dane — YACH expanded in 2018 to include eight additional teams. The new sites are Bad River, Crawford/Vernon, Iowa/Grant/Lafayette, Menominee, Manitowoc, Marquette, Milwaukee and Walworth Counties. All were represented at the orientation.
Dane County team discovered misperceptions about the new Northside Willy Street Co-op — the only grocery store in their neighborhood — that prevented community members from purchasing healthy, affordable foods. Their action plan centered on informing the community about a fruit and vegetable discount program at the store.
The youth also worked beyond their original plan. They interviewed stakeholders at the food co-op and at the neighborhood planning committee, conducted retail cost-comparisons and completed walkability assessments. They even maintained a community garden and encouraged residents to get involved in it.
Dane County YACH participants collaborate with the Madison and Dane County Public Health Department to paint a mural behind the Warner Park Community Center on Madison’s Northside in 2017.
“I hope that we can be some kind of help for people on the Northside [of Madison],” said one Dane County youth. “At the end of this, I hope to see people doing more grocery shopping at the Willy Street Co-op. And just using their local grocery store to their advantage.”
In year one, nine new community relationships were established. Stakeholders said they developed respect for young people through their interactions.
“If young people like the ones I met in this group can find their way into leadership positions, this world may just have a shot of being the inclusive place most of us wish it to be,” said Robert Halstead, owner-resources coordinator at Willy St. Co-op. “You can’t just wish and pray though. You have to work. This group felt like they were ready to work, and it was an honor to spend my time with them.”