Young Researchers Bring Lived Experience to Solving Food Waste

When a July 2017 report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated that the food wasted in the United States on a yearly basis would be enough to provide 190 million adults with the nutrition and calories they needed, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

Locally, a group of Historic South Central Los Angeles Jefferson High School students known as The Health Academy had already witnessed food waste and recouped unused food items from the Breakfast in the Classroom program and offered it to food insecure students throughout the day in strategically placed baskets throughout the school.

The Health Academy teens were participants in a novel community engagement program spearheaded by National Health Foundation (NHF) utilizing a youth participatory action research, or YPAR, model. In this model, students are introduced to public health concepts and apply training, facilitation and research practices to improve the health of their community based on their lived experience within that community.

More specifically, students engaged in access mapping, collecting and analyzing data and mapping out where they could affect the biggest change. The students applied their YPAR findings to press their school for action on food waste and hunger offering a cost-effective solution.

By late August 2017, SB-557 was passed so that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could effectively recover unopened/unused food and distribute it to food pantries. More importantly, the law paved the way for the schools to be permitted to set up ‘share tables.’ A growing trend in stemming food waste, share tables are a space where students and faculty can drop off unused food for redistribution to food insecure students. With the laws in place, the students needed to now affect school policies to bring their share tables to life.

“We like to think we set the traditional public health model on its ear by empowering students to shape their communities and environments, as well as the policies that govern them rather than passively observe. Even though there are so many layers that affect them, we want the students to be the greatest influencers and influence all the other sectors,” said Health Academy program manager Chad Monk. “The students have gone on to press for policy change at their school, paving the way for their share tables to become a reality.”

While the students have been hard at work learning about food handling laws and partnering with school officials and leadership, an unanticipated positive has emerged. At Jefferson High School, the students created a Health Academy Club and voted a governing body into place. Their leadership has led to the opportunity to create a best practice guide for the Los Angeles Unified School District so that other schools seeking to implement SB-557 can effectively do so. Furthermore, students have come face-to-face with the concept of the social determinants of health.

“Students have recognized how health is a complex tapestry of services and access and are applying that knowledge to their community and seeing results,” said Monk.

For NHF, the success of the students in recognizing and creatively addressing needs in their community is no surprise.

“We see the passion and strength of the youth in our community, and it is much like the power exhibited by students around the country as they rally to change gun laws. If we can give them the tools to research, strategize and organize around what matters to them, our communities will be the healthier for it!” said Monk.