“Healthy foods are not available in many neighborhoods,” a young female voice says as an image of a distressed Philadelphia neighborhood flashes on the screen, followed by another with shelves full of potato chips, candy and soda. “Corner stores put junk food in the front so it’s in plain sight,” the girl continues. “The majority of the produce is rotten,” she adds as images of rotten tomatoes appear on the screen, “and fast food is on every corner.” Another voice intones, “There is faulty equipment at parks—rusted jungle bars, swings missing, basketball hoops with no nets…many citizens told us they don’t like to go to the park due to unsafe activities.” These images and voices are part of a Photovoice assessment conducted in summer 2009 by youth participants in Philadelphia Urban Food and Fitness Alliance (PUFFA). The project documented the many barriers to healthy eating and active living in four Philadelphia neighborhoods. Through Photovoice—a process that blends a community-based approach to photography and social action—50 PUFFA youth participants recorded and reflected their communities’ strengths and concerns, identified issues and proposed solutions to food access and fitness opportunities. What they saw: little or no access to fresh food and produce, unsafe playgrounds and sidewalks, vacant spaces, and under-used resources. Their recommendations: beautify communities, increase access to healthier foods by making them more visible and affordable, and encourage citizens to exercise more.

Through PUFFA, youth are learning the importance of eating healthy."

Administered by Health Promotion Council, a PHMC affiliate, PUFFA is one of nine community-led projects nationwide funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Communities Initiative to transform food systems and environments locally. On behalf of the Philadelphia partnership, Health Promotion Council, a PHMC affiliate, administers PUFFA.

The Photovoice project, led by PUFFA’s lead evaluator Thomas Jefferson Medical University, is just one of the many ways PUFFA has engaged youth to become personally involved in creating an equitable and just local food system. Findings from four Photovoice projects helped inform PUFFA’s 2009 comprehensive community action plan. Now with the plan in hand and the goal of changing policies and environments to support healthy people living in healthy places, PUFFA youth are working diligently to shape their communities and environments.

Last year, two local high school students, Sarahn Sankofa and Omar Epps, attended a conference in Chandler, AZ, sponsored by W.K. Kellogg Foundation. There, in a local delegation including members from Fair Foods, the School District of Philadelphia, the Enterprise Center CDC, Common Market, Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, Nu Sigma Youth Services, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Department of Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Foundation and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the teens gained insight into what others around the country were doing to promote healthy eating. They participated in dynamic skill-building workshops, such as how to advocate for change, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities with youth from across the country. They also learned basic nutrition principles.

PUFFA youth pick corn with Cory Miller, program director, Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, a PUFFA community partner.

Through the conference, the Philadelphia delegation learned of Food Empowerment Education Sustainability Team (FEEST), a group formed in Seattle, WA. FEEST gathers young people to prepare and share healthy, delicious food in a space where they can become actively engaged in issues of food resources. At the end of each month, FEEST youth invite neighbors of all ages to attend a community potluck dinner, which regularly attracts more than 50 community members to interact with young people. Sankofa and Epps decided to bring the concept back to Philadelphia. They organized students to cook monthly as a team. With the help of a nutritionist, the youth eat together family-style while learning more about food in their communities and discussing ways to effect change.

“We’ve taken the model from Seattle and brought it here to Philadelphia,” says Tiffany Spraggins, a senior at Temple University who worked as a supervisor with the youth in the summer of 2010 and now serves as a youth engagement supervisor. “We have a nice little group. A lot of them are athletes. Some of them are vegetarians. What makes them special is that they’re a select group of youth-led youth who have come together at such a young age to expand on food and nutrition.” The Philadelphia FEEST students first met in September 2010 and remain consistent in their dedication to each other and healthy eating. In February, they renamed their project to reflect Philadelphia’s work: Students Advocating for Lifestyle Transformations and Philadelphia Urban Food and Fitness Alliance, better known as SALT and PUFFA.

“Through PUFFA, youth are learning the importance of eating healthy and what it will mean for them in the long term,” says Diane-Louise Wormley, project director of PUFFA. Partnering with WHYY, Wormley guided students through a 2010 series of public service announcements and documentaries, which can be viewed on WHYY's website. In 2010, the students also participated in a pilot texting campaign through Philadelphia’s WorkReady employer-paid summer internship program.

To view PUFFA youth videos, visit WHYY.ORG

Before joining PUFFA, many students were unaware of the importance of healthy eating and regular physical activity. One student had never tasted the goodness of fresh sweet corn, not necessarily because her family could not afford it but simply because she and her parents were not educated on the health benefits of fresh vegetables. Through PUFFA, students like Sankofa and Epps approach healthy living seriously as they learn the importance of nutritious foods and how to bring the message to their local communities and schools. “These young people have the desire and the capacity to change their circumstances. That’s very good news,” says Wormley.

For more on PUFFA, visit hpcpa.org.