FUQUAY-VARINA — An eye-opening lesson has unfolded for a group of students who set about mapping where to buy healthful food in their community.
Such places are not so easy to find.
The students at Fuquay-Varina High School, and a recent graduate who is now enrolled at Wake Technical Community College, have spent the past year using satellite-positioning technology, computers and legwork to log where young people can find something other than Twinkies to eat. They'll soon begin to add recreational spots, greenways and walking paths.
Their work is part of a larger interactive mapping project by the nonprofit Advocates for Health in Action, a group that fights childhood obesity and is supported by area hospitals, youth organizations, health advocacy agencies and others.
The health group, armed with a $55,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, set out to map where healthful foods are available in relation to schools, parks and recreational areas.
Grant money helped pay for hand-held geographic information systems that the teen mappers use to pinpoint the locations of grocery stores, convenience marts and farmers markets.
"This has never been done," said Laura Aiken, director of Advocates for Health in Action. "You would think this kind of information would be out there, but it's not."
Aiken said the information is crucial to understand what environmental factors help fuel childhood obesity. In North Carolina, 34 percent of children are overweight or obese, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Health Foundation. Nationally, the rate is 32 percent.
A big part of that problem stems from the easy availability of junk food, particularly for teens. Convenience stores near schools, for example, draw throngs of students before and after school, and sometimes at lunch for high school students who have off-campus eating privileges.
What these stores tend to offer is a teen's delight of snack cakes, chips, candy bars,sodas and other high-calorie, low-nutrition offerings.
"When you're hungry, all you're worried about is getting food," said Onaje Humbert, 16, a sophomore at Fuquay-Varina High School and member of the 4-H crew involved in the mapping project. "You don't care what it is."
Humbert and his colleagues interviewed students at a convenience store near their school, and found that most were happy to load up on chips and honey buns. But even if someone wanted healthful snacks, few were available.
"The only healthy options were water and baked chips," said Trent Williams, a 14-year-old freshman and member of the FVHS mapping team.
The group plans to talk with the store's manager this week about making small changes to encourage more healthful behavior from teen customers. Among theirideas is moving some of the junk food tolower shelves, so it isn't as tempting.
"If you have healthy items all the way on the bottom or the top, and the unhealthy items at eye level - at children's eye level - that's the only place they'll look," Williams said.
The Fuquay-Varina teens said they have learned unexpected lessons as they've logged hours and miles tracking the food options in their community.
They said even major grocery stores that would seem to offer a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and other good-for-you items have their drawbacks. Many of those items, the youngsters discovered, are more expensive than a box of snack cakes and a jumbo bag of chips.
"I think it's hard to convince people to eat right," saidVivian McCarter, 15, a sophomore at Fuquay-Varina.
She said she didn't even think about healthful food choices until she got involved in the mapping project. Now she rattles off statistics about obesity rates, North Carolina's ranking in the nation, and the average number of calories for a convenience store snack: "Three hundred and six calories,"McCarter said.
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