How do you get a 4th grader to stroll into a corner grocery, bypass the potato chips and reach for a piece of fruit? That’s the tricky question a Portland, Ore. Ladder to Leadership (LTL) team set out to answer for the residents of Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood.

Like many urban neighborhoods that offer only poor food choices, New Columbia is a multi-ethnic, mixed-income neighborhood where many residents do not own a car and the nearest supermarket is nearly two miles away. To solve this problem, local community activists spearheaded the creation of the Village Market—a community-driven corner grocery that would provide healthy, affordable food for the area.

Once they heard about the Village Market project, a group of 2010-2012 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders program participants decided the market was an ideal place to create a special, healthy foods corner just for kids.

RWJF Community Health All-Stars
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholars, fellows and grantees, along with the Community Health Leader award winners, address the health needs of the nation in unique and innovative ways. Whether they are creating healthier environments, bringing needed health resources to underserved communities, diversifying the local health care workforce or generating grassroots programs—they make a difference. This series tells their stories.

The LTL group was comprised of Jessica Chanay, deputy director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Celeste Janssen, program manager at Oregon Mentors, Suzy Jeffreys, clinic director at North by Northeast Community Health Center, Christina Reyes, volunteer manager at Educational Opportunities for Children and Families in Vancouver, Washington, Adriana Voss-Andreae, M.D., Ph.D., public health advocate, Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives and Angela Weaver, health educator at the Oregon Office on Disability. They decided to call themselves the Go Food! team and got to work.

Connecting With Local Kids

“We wanted to build a strong connection with youth in the community,” Jeffreys says, “so it made sense for us to engage them in helping us create a kid-focused section at the Village Market.” To find children to participate in the project, Jeffreys and the rest of the Go Food! team reached out to nearby Rosa Parks Elementary School. Parks’ students are economically and culturally diverse, but about 95 percent of them receive free or reduced-price lunches. Teacher Marsha Wolfe enthusiastically volunteered her 4th grade class for the program.

The Go Food! team began by instructing the kids on the basics of nutrition and healthy eating. Then, they encouraged them to participate in discussions on topics such as how what you eat and drink can affect your body and mood, how to identify healthy food, how to read food labels and how much sugar is hidden in soda, fruit drinks and chocolate milk.

The students were receptive and sometimes surprised. The children didn’t realize, for example, how much sugar was in their soft drinks or how often media and advertising affected their food buying habits. The team tested them by showing them pictures of famous food company logos that did not include brand names. “The kids knew every single one of them,” team member Reyes says. “It was one of those a-ha moments for them.”

For their part, the students designed the Village Market’s Kids’ Corner and provided art to decorate the space. They also conducted taste tests of potential food items so that their preferences could guide many of the decisions about which foods to stock on the shelves. Choices such as fresh fruit, low-fat snacks and bottled water made the cut. When the Village Market opened in June 2011, many of the Rosa Parks Elementary students were on hand to participate in the official ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Participating in the interactive and fun classroom curriculum and being involved in designing their very own healthy snack shelves right at the entrance of their local store got the kids more excited about making healthier food choices,” Voss-Andreae says. “But both the short-term and long-term success [of the Kids’ Corner project] is highly dependent on the larger community working together to support our youth educators and local businesses.”

A Sustainable Future

Although the Go Food! team has completed their official involvement in the Kids’ Corner; their work continues to have an impact on the Village Market and the community at large. Vanessa Keenan, who lives in the New Columbia neighborhood, and her 10-year-old daughter, Kaleha, learned about both teamwork and nutrition when Kaleha participated in the Kids’ Corner project. “She got experience being a team player and being vocal in giving her opinion about nutritious snack food items,” Keenan says. “And I’ve noticed over the summer that she is more conscious of her weight. She’s trying to eat healthier and is exercising more.”

Throughout the project, the Go Food! team also worked with Egbevado Ananouko, the assistant manager at the Village Market who is in charge of the Kids’ Corner. The team’s work has provided enough momentum for the Lamb Foundation to fund Ananouko’s position for a year. The funding will allow him to improve the Kids’ Corner and continue the educational program in the community. The Go Food! team members will continue to serve in an advisory role.

Bringing LTL Skills to the Table

Jeffreys also explains that she is applying her lessons from her Ladder to Leadership training and the experience of creating the Kids’ Corner to her work at the North by Northeast Community Health Center. “One of the things we talk about a lot and take seriously is responding to the needs and feedback of our community,” she says. “Through Ladder to Leadership, I learned how to ask questions in an appropriate way and how to be inclusive.”

And the community leaders at the Village Market—a diverse group in terms of age and ethnicity—“provided role models and strategies for empowering the community to move the project forward,” Jeffreys adds. “They modeled for me and for our entire group a way of working in a community that allowed community leadership to really drive the process.”

Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders is a collaborative initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Creative Leadership. The program works to enhance the leadership capacity of community-based nonprofit health and health-related organizations serving vulnerable populations. Ladder to Leadership focuses on developing critical leadership competencies through an innovative leadership development curriculum. The program focuses on eight priority communities around the country.