Michigan programs empower kids to be community health leaders

When kids take the reins, health and wellness programs take off in new and wonderful directions that the adults in charge would never have anticipated. 
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

When kids take the reins, health and wellness programs take off in new and wonderful directions that the adults in charge would never have anticipated. We checked in with several recent Michigan Health Endowment Fund grantees to discuss how they're empowering children as health leaders, and the resulting positive effects on their communities.

Muskegon County: Creating Healthy Schools              
Creating Healthy Schools, a Muskegon Area Intermediate School District (ISD) program, seeks to improve students' physical health and decrease childhood obesity.

"The school food environment has a lot of influence on students’ behavior," says Ashley Westerlund, health education consultant for Muskegon Area ISD. "We have them for 13 years and serve them a meal or two a day. We can really influence the outcomes and change the environment."

To engage students as leaders in their own health, Creating Healthy Schools invited teams of youth at different school districts to join staff and administrators in completing the State of Michigan Healthy School Action Toolkit (HSAT), a web-based program that assesses the overall health environment of a school building.

"In one instance, the superintendent sat down with the students to explain his role and talk about all these different areas that the HSAT was looking at," says Elissa Penczar, chef instructor at Muskegon Area Career Tech Center. "That gave them a glimpse into how schools operate."

Penczar also engages her students in creating their own healthy recipes in the Tech Center’s commercial kitchen. Through partnerships with Michigan Works! and the Michigan State University Mobile Food Processing Lab, the students learn how to scale up and commercialize their creations. In addition, Penczar takes the students to conferences like the Good Food Summit to broaden their experience.

"We've given kids a lot of leadership opportunities," Penczar says. "They have the agency to say, ‘This is what we want to do. This is what we think is important.’ Our students are working shoulder-to-shoulder with adults in a professional capacity, developing a professional network of colleagues, and learning how to navigate those waters."

Some student recipes won awards at the Michigan Hospitality Foundation ProStart statewide invitational. The recipes had to meet the National Restaurant Association's guidelines.

"As a result, these student leaders were invited to Lansing for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association's Capitol Day, where they provided tastings to lawmakers and introduced themselves to industry leaders," Penczar says. "Every single student there was offered a job on this spot."

Marquette and Alger counties: LIFT-UP

The Locally Integrated Food Teams in the Upper Peninsula (LIFT-UP) program uses land-based learning to establish farm-to-school food purchases in rural Michigan. Students set the direction for LIFT-UP teams at Negaunee High School and Superior Central School. LIFT-UP is a collaboration among Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability and Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, U.P. Food Exchange, and Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency (Marquette-Alger RESA).
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
"The high school students have so many brilliant ideas about how to make positive changes in their buildings. They get a lot of ownership when they are creating the project — and ownership makes them buy in to eating better," says Rachel Bloch, health education consultant for Marquette-Alger RESA. "LIFT-UP gives them the independence to make changes within their school to increase local food access. The students really become advocates for making those changes in their community."
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
When it came time to figure out new ways to get more locally grown produce into school lunches, the students came up with ideas that adults in the project hadn’t considered. To make food from a local farm more affordable, students helped plant, care for, and harvest a crop of potatoes. Students also figured out ways to grow their own food at school. One LIFT-UP team used grant money to purchase a hydroponic growing unit that now provides 75% of the veggies on their school's cafeteria salad bar. Another LIFT-UP team laid pipe from their school’s boiler to the school’s hoop house to extend its growing season.

"The students are so proud of the work that they're doing," Bloch says. "They're watching their environment change to support healthy living."

As the high school students succeed as leaders in these projects, they have also become mentors for younger students.
Students participate in the LIFT-UP program.
"The students are teaching nutrition and agriculture lessons to the elementary students. Their goal is to get the younger students interested in their garden and be interested in healthy living," Bloch says. "It’s really beautiful. Those younger students really look up to the older students as their healthy role models."

Ishpeming: The Regenerative Initiative

As in many Michigan rural communities, residents of the Upper Peninsula city of Ishpeming experience a lack of access to healthy foods. In response, Ishpeming Public Schools embarked on the Regenerative Initiative with a collaborative nonprofit partner, Partridge Creek Farm. The farm maintains six community gardens in downtown Ishpeming and is building a 3.75-acre intergenerational farm adjacent to the high school, middle school, and an older adult housing facility. May Tsupros, Partridge Creek Farm executive director of programs and partnerships, says the farm will produce 20,000-30,000 pounds of food annually, with 60-70% of the produce going to Ishpeming school cafeterias.
"We found that by growing community through local food, we not only get people to eat healthier and create a local economy but also really connect humans, especially in this moment of coming out of COVID isolation," Tsupros says.
Students run a farm stand as part of Partridge Creek Farm's farm to school program in Ishpeming.
Farm-to-school programming within the district immerses all fifth- and sixth-graders in 28 weeks of food education programming.

"It's exciting to see kids stepping up to hold each other accountable for healthy habits," Tsupros says. "One of our students decided that raw kale was delicious. So, he took it upon himself to lead the charge to get all the fifth graders loving to eat raw kale."
Students run a farm stand as part of Partridge Creek Farm's farm to school program in Ishpeming.
This coming fall, the district will launch a career technical education program in agriculture at the farm. 

"We will truly be growing the next generation of farmers here in Michigan, and they will be using the intergenerational farm as their outdoor learning laboratory," Tsupros says. "We also have an indoor hydroponic grow lab. They’ll get to experience outdoor farming as well as innovative indoor growing."

Across the state: Communities in Schools 

The Student Voices for Healthy Choices program teaches students how to be changemakers. The program is a joint venture between Communities in Schools (CIS) of Michigan and CIS of Northwest Michigan, both affiliates of the national nonprofit CIS. A total of 12 schools in Detroit, Dearborn, Battle Creek, Ypsilanti, and Lansing took part in the program this past year. CIS hopes to expand into more locations across the state next year. 
Students participate in physical activity programming organized by CIS of Northwest Michigan.
"We help students build their skills, so they really feel confident in using their voices," says Syed Murtaza, senior director of learning and equity supports at CIS of Michigan. "We surround our students with a sense of community to help with building leadership skills and confidence. This is something they're going to carry on with them forever."

Student Voices for Healthy Choices focuses on physical activity, nutrition, and mental health.  Murtaza enjoys hearing the kids talk about interviewing their principals, talking to people in their school districts, and sharing information with their peers about food waste or sugar content in foods.
Student Voices for Healthy Choices program participants at Ypsilanti Middle School run a smoothie bar.
"Young people tend to listen to other young people," Murtaza says. "When students talk to their peers about the sugar content in some of the foods and drinks that they take in on a daily basis, they seem to be paying more attention — and what they're eating or drinking changes slightly. To have your voice heard at that level makes an impact."

In one school, upper elementary students created a cookbook of student recipes.

"These are recipes that young students can prepare on their own," Murtaza says. "The students understood that cooking comes at different skill levels." 

Student Voices for Health Choices not only directly impacts the students’ health, but also engages them as community organizers who plan and execute projects to make positive change for their peers and the school community.
Students participate in CIS of Michigan training, which engaged student representatives from each Michigan school participating in Student Voices for Healthy Choices.
"We’re supporting youth in understanding their own ability with skills to navigate the real world. They're learning how to be leaders," Murtaza says. "These leadership skills are skills that they're going to use now in school or on an athletic team and later as a CEO of a company, an entrepreneur, or whatever they choose to do in their lives."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos courtesy of featured organizations.
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