Back-to-School season comes with a fresh focus on child nutrition

It’s Back-to-School season and this year, that means students are heading back to cafeterias stocked with healthier food.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which took effect July 1, made huge changes to school meals and the entire school food environment, for the first time in 30 years.

This week, there has been a lot of buzz on the Internet about the law, schools’ new menus and child nutrition. Here is a peak at two regional organizations that are focusing on nutrition in schools and communities.

To learn more about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act , check out Capital Public Radio’s latest community health documentary, ‘What’s For Lunch? The Move to Improve School Nutrition.’

The documentary will air this Friday (Aug. 24) at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Here’s a preview:

And if you want to know how young people are reacting to schools’ new menus – and want a glimpse into what young people are eating in general – follow the The kNOw Youth Media’s Twitter list.

They are tweeting their meals, as part of their #DiaryofaTeenDiet.

In a recent editorial, the young people at The kNOw said they are hopeful that they can help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic in the region and nationwide.

One reason we’re so hopeful: Our culture is in favor of healthy weight in children. No one says, “I’m ok with obese kids.” People universally agree that healthy weight in kids is important. Unlike reducing youth violence, working on obesity in kids doesn’t call for a change of culture. It requires a change of what’s available and what’s easiest. Kids will be healthy if it’s an easy option.

How are you and your family bringing a fresh focus to child nutrition?

More about the new school lunch requirements:

More from Harvesting Health on school nutrition:

The story behind the story

“Why do you care about the students here?” Leonides Olea, 24, asked me a couple weeks ago.

I was interviewing Olea – a student at the YouthBuild Charter School of California Central, partnered locally with the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s Local Conservation Corps – for the first story in a series of articles that would chronicle his path toward achieving a high school diploma.

Well, I told him, it’s a long story, and it goes something like this:

Earlier this year, I partnered with Marcus Vega, who was a youth reporter with The kNOw Youth Media, to work on a series of stories about youth homelessness. As we worked on the stories, I also learned more about Marcus’ personal experiences with youth homelessness. (Read his first-person piece about this reporting project and his own experiences with homelessness.)

As I wrote in a blog post about the reporting project, working with Marcus proved to me that education truly is a path out of poverty – but that it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve, when they are just focused on day-to-day survival.

But it wasn’t until I covered the first hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color that I truly understood how many young men in our community are at risk of falling through the cracks.

During the hearing, experts testified about the gross disparities in health, education, incarceration and violence impacting boys and young men of color. If these disparities are not improved, there could be major ramifications for the future of the state – where 70 percent of those under 18 are children of color – and for the country – where half of all residents are projected to be people of color by 2040.

It would have been a depressing hearing, if it were not for the handful of young men who told their own stories of struggle – and eventual success. Hearing those testimonies made me want to connect with a young man in the Valley and follow him, to see what it would take for him to succeed.

And that’s how I found myself at the YouthBuild Charter School, interviewing Olea, a 24-year-old father of five who has embraced the opportunity to achieve his high school degree as if his life depended on it.

“I have been shot twice, I have been stabbed twice, but I’m still here,” he said. “I see that as a sign just letting me know that I’m wanted here for some reason — because if not, I would have been gone a long time ago.”

I believe in young men like Vega and Olea. And so does Dr. Vajra Watson, director of research and policy for equity within the UC Davis School of Education, who described her own belief in youth during a conference at UC Merced last week.

“Education is a gateway to survival – but marginalization is man-made, intergenerational and systemic,” she said. “All great movements begin in the heart of a young person.”

Other reporting on barriers to youth success:


Investigating youth homelessness: A journey for two reporters

This winter, I collaborated on a reporting project exploring youth homelessness and education with Marcus Vega, a formerly homeless youth and reporter for The kNOw Youth Media. The series of stories, which were supported by a New America Media fellowship, are currently running on NAM’s website.

Our collaboration represented the first time NAM had paired an ethnic media reporter with a youth reporter to work on an in-depth series of stories. From our first person pieces below, I think it’s obvious that both Marcus and I learned a lot about each other, ourselves, journalism, and homelessness during this unprecedented reporting journey.

Please read Marcus’ first person piece here.

When I first started working on a series of stories on homeless youth with Marcus, a homeless youth and a reporter for The kNOw Youth Media, I was curious to see how our partnership would work out.

Any doubts I might have had were immediately erased when we conducted our first interview together at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter.

During the interview, I asked three homeless women to describe the importance of – and challenges involved with – getting their children to school, while residing at the homeless shelter. The women opened up to us, and happily answered all of our questions.

Then Marcus asked a few questions he had typed into his cell phone. They were questions I hadn’t even thought to ask, since I had never been in their shoes. “Do you receive any county assistance?” he asked the women. And: “What do you plan to do to improve your situation?”

Marcus never told the women of his background, but it was almost like they could tell – not from his voice or his hooded sweatshirt, but from his knowledge, empathy and understanding of their situation. They spoke with him directly, in a less formal tone than they had used with me.

As we left the homeless shelter that morning, Marcus expressed pleasant surprise that the women seemed so comfortable sharing their story with us. I, myself, was excited by how well our partnership had worked that morning, and how Marcus could play an important role in keeping the series of stories relevant and honest.

After that first interview, Marcus and I worked together for about two months. Throughout that time, I tried to teach him journalism tips and techniques.

One afternoon, we sat in Vida en el Valle’s conference room inside the Fresno Bee, and talked about how to effectively structure an interview. Then, with those tips in mind, Marcus led an interview with a 20-year-old formerly homeless youth who is now a student at California State University, Fresno. (Marcus’ story about Daniella can be read here.)
And during our collaboration, Marcus taught me about the challenges and realities of being a homeless youth in Fresno.

One morning, Marcus and I went searching in downtown Fresno for homeless youth to interview. From his life experiences, he knew where to look. We visited the downtown library, and Fresno’s Tower District, both places where homeless youth often hang out. We also visited the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s Transitional Living Center, a shelter for homeless youth where Marcus himself had lived, and still had friendly contacts.

We didn’t find youth to interview that day, but under his guidance, I learned to see Fresno from a new perspective.

Working closely with Marcus brought alive the issues of youth homelessness, and the challenges homeless youth face in accessing education.

One afternoon, Marcus was at the Fresno Bee to work on the project. On the way out, he asked if we could check out the job openings at the company. Marcus,  who is very close to earning his high school degree, was frustrated to realize that even manual labor jobs in the Bee’s warehouse required at least a high school diploma.

He is a good writer, and had even mentioned to me, on the way to one of our interviews, that he is interested in pursuing a career in journalism. But realizing that his opportunities would be restricted until he finished his studies underscored the focus of our stories: Education truly is a path out of poverty, but it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve.

Read our entire series, Young and Homeless, on New America Media:

Youth develop system to track buses, transform transportation

Miguel Bibanco, a 16-year-old student at Edison High School, relies on the Fresno Area Express (FAX) bus system for daily transportation to school, back home, and anywhere else he needs to go.

Since he cannot yet drive, Bibanco said he is thankful to have access to the public bus. But, he said, he wishes the bus service were more efficient. Bus service is not readily available late at night and on the weekends, he said.

The bus, he said, provides “services that I’m glad to be receiving, but I would definitely like to see improvements in some of those areas.”

That’s where BusTracker comes in. On Monday, members of The Know Youth Media introduced BusTracker, a mapping tool for the Fresno community to report and track incidents on the FAX bus system.

Though the FAX was recently ranked the 5th best bus system in the country, “we see a need to add to that report actual rider experiences – the community involvement, the customer service element,” said Anna Jacobsen, The Know’s health media coordinator, during a press conference in Courthouse Park.

“We want to get an accurate picture of what is really going on on our bus system.”

  • If you’re a frequent bus rider, be sure to check out BusTracker and share your experiences – both good and bad. You can submit your report via text message, e-mail, or right on the website. In the report, you can describe your experience, and pin it on a map.

As BusTracker becomes more popular, it is intended to tell stories about FAX rider experiences, and help improve the overall bus system, said Albert Maldonado of the California Endowment.

“I think this BusTracker is a really great opportunity for community residents to weigh in on their experiences on the bus, both good and bad,” Maldonado said. “It’s an opportunity for us to make some positive changes, and it’s an opportunity for the decision-makers to actually hear what is the riders’ experience while on FAX.”

Watch this video, produced by The Know Youth Media, featuring Miguel Bibanco discussing Bus Tracker.

Formerly homeless youth describes reporting on homeless youth

The last story in Vida’s three-part series on youth homelessness ran in this week’s edition of Vida.

This week’s story is a little different: It’s a first-person piece, written by youth journalist Marcus Vega (pictured above), about his own experience working on this project, as a formerly homeless youth himself.

His words are powerful:

In the process of hearing the stories of other homeless, I think of my own experience. I was homeless too at one point, and sort of am still since I live with a friend’s family.

All I remember is dwelling in an abandoned apartment, being hungry all the time, and the never-ending struggle to find a roof over my head.

Read the rest of Marcus’ story here.

Catch up on the other parts of the series here:

Read past blogs about this project here:

Homelessness: A year-round problem in Fresno County

I’m currently collaborating on a story about homeless youth in Fresno County. As part of my research, I interviewed last week three homeless women who are living at the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter in downtown Fresno.

Anissa Gutierrez, a mother of three, told me she lost her apartment days before Christmas. There were no available rooms at the shelter at that time, so she and her kids bounced through the homes of various friends and family members. Always, she said, she tried “not to wear out my welcome at anybody’s house.”

Christmas came during that period when Gutierrez and her children were homeless.

“I’m not going to lie, I made the kids stay up real late the day before so they would sleep most of the day on Christmas, so they wouldn’t even notice it was Christmas,” Gutierrez said.

“I felt so bad for them on Christmas,” she said. “They don’t know – but it made me feel awful.”

Gutierrez’s story hit me hard. But as Laura Tanner-McBrien, of Fresno Unified School District’s Department of Prevention and Intervention told me, it’s important to put that story in context: That was just one of the many days of that Gutierrez, her children, and thousands of others are homeless.

“Homelessness is a year-round thing,” said Tanner-McBrien, who manages the school district’s homeless outreach programs.

“The one thing that always surprises me is that it’s only focused upon during the holidays. We forget that come January and February, those families are still homeless and in need of services, and the children still need things.”

Fresno’s homeless count in January 2009 was 3,591, according to the Fresno Bee. Fresno Unified estimates there are about 2,400 homeless students in the school district.

Want to learn more about youth homelessness in Fresno County? I’m working on this project with Marcus Vega, a youth journalist for The kNOw Youth Media. Check out the video he produced for The kNOw about youth homelessness.

Photo  by Marcus Vega.