Faced with the alarming trend of rising youth obesity rates in Canada, a group of Grade 10 students in Ontario took on a daunting challenge: convince more than 500 classmates to start eating better.
The eight high school students designed a plan to make their peers aware of the marketing tactics some companies use to sell unhealthy foods to young people. To finance the project, they applied to the Canadian Cancer Society and received a Youth 4 Action grant.
Making healthy food choices is essential for everyone but is especially important for growing teenagers. Obesity puts youth at greater risk for serious illnesses in adulthood, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and various types of cancer. The World Health Organization has even referred to obesity in North America as an epidemic.
The group, led by Faith Lollar, Priya Gupta and Marie Lynch, launched a campaign that put a spotlight on marketing tricks that mislead people into thinking food products are healthy when they’re not. At the same time, the group also promoted and handed out free samples of tasty and genuinely nutritious snacks.
“We didn’t want to focus only on the negative of food marketing and fast food. We wanted to show students and staff what the healthier choices are,” explains Lisa Lollar, the designated adult who oversaw the group’s campaign.
The teens created an eye-catching display using vibrant posters and images comparing nutritious foods against well-marketed convenience foods. They aptly titled their display “The Market vs the Marketed”.
For young people who are hungry and on the go, making the right food choice is not so straight forward. Foods high in fat, sugar and sodium are attractively packaged, easy to access and often seen as more affordable than healthier food options.
The group knew that they needed a campaign that challenged their peers’ perception of fast food if they wanted their message to stick. After learning about the Canadian Cancer Society’s Youth 4 Action Grant from the public health nurse at their school, they submitted their application detailing their plan to bring good eating habits and a healthier food environment to their school. Within a few weeks, the grant came through, giving them access to resources about healthy eating, the deception of food marketing and a $300 cheque to make their campaign come to life.
With these resources and financial boost, the group put their plan into action. On May 19, 2015, the eight teens set up a booth in their school’s atrium and outfitted their cheerful display with takeaway resources and cleverly positioned a number of large containers filled with fresh healthy snacks. During the lunch period, students and staff could not resist grabbing a banana, an apple or a bag of carrot sticks and snap peas as they passed by the booth. Over two days, the students used this opportunity to tell their classmates and school staff about the importance of adopting healthy eating habits.
Their plan was simple and highly effective. The gesture of giving away healthy snacks at lunch time reinforced the notion that healthy food options are also delicious, convenient and affordable.
“One student passed me in the hall about a week after the campaign, held up a baggie filled with veggies, and said ‘See, I brought veggies today,'” recalls Lollar.
The Youth 4 Action Grant program is a Canadian Cancer Society initiative that runs twice every school year and is available to youth groups across the province. The program empowers youth to play a part in raising awareness of cancer prevention and advocate for cancer-related public policies in their communities.
Just as Faith, Priya and Marie did, youth in Ontario 14 and older can create a plan that addresses one of the five areas of cancer prevention they’re most passionate about: Big Tobacco Lies, Tanning Is Out, The Truth About Food Marketing, Get Active Stay Active and What’s Your Cancer Exposure?