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Teens help assess neighborhoods for availability of healthy options Data will help combat obesity

A chain-link fence. Shards of a shattered beer bottle. A bright red sign that reads "No Loitering." A neatly kept flower garden in a raised bed. A giant sheet of metal covering a hole in the sidewalk.

On a recent day, 15 teenagers were dispatched to neighborhoods on the East and West sides of Buffalo to assess how conducive they were for walking, biking and doing other outdoor activities -- from a young person's perspective.

The information they collected will be used by Healthy Kids Healthy Communities -- a nationally funded anti-child-obesity program -- to inform local policymakers about things that can be done to encourage and support healthy lifestyles.

"I'm seeing a busted bottle on the sidewalk," Paul Douth, 16, a student at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, said as he and two friends surveyed a segment of Wohlers Avenue.

He took a photo of the bottle with a GPS-coded cellphone and jotted down some notes on a clipboard.

"That's not very safe," he said. "Some kid could walk down this sidewalk and get cut serious injured."

> 'People actually care'

Iliana Rodriguez, 18, a student at McKinley High School, noticed a bright red "No Loitering" sign placed high up on a pole.

"That's the first time I've seen that anywhere," said Rodriguez, who lives on the West Side.

She felt it was an indication that "people actually care about this neighborhood."

Healthy Kids Healthy Communities, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is a national program aimed at fighting childhood obesity. Buffalo is one of 50 communities participating.

Buffalo's project brings together an array of groups and institutions interested in community health, including the University at Buffalo, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and Western New York, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, Green Options Buffalo and the city school district, as well as the city Planning Department.

The Buffalo Healthy Kids project is tackling two issues in the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods -- healthy eating and active living -- according to project coordinator Jessie Gouck.

She is workly closely with Samina Raja, an associate professor at UB's School of Architecture and Planning, who is using the information collected by the young people, along with other census data about poverty levels and where the largest concentrations of youth live, to create maps that pinpoint areas where there's a lack of access to healthy foods and impediments to walking, biking and playing outside.

> Pinpointing need

That information then would be given to lawmakers and other stakeholders in the community who could take actions to support small businesses that provide healthy foods while discouraging the sale of unhealthy foods. Or they could be encouraged to fix sidewalks, put in better street lighting, put in bike lanes or create more playgrounds.

"The question in Buffalo is: When we're looking to do redevelopment and revitalization, where are the places in the city where people are concentrated?" Gouck said.

Last year, young people were asked to assess two neighborhoods -- one on the West Side and one in Riverside -- to determine what kind of food was available to people there. Raja matched that data with maps of locations of schools, grocery stores, corner shops and restaurants and looked at what was available to students within walking distance of schools.

"With that map, we were able to look at the entire city and see: Where are youth located in high numbers and in high levels of poverty? What is the existing food retail environment? What has access to vehicles?" Gouck said. This year, the project is focused on active living.

Raja had the young people take photos of what they saw and give commentary.

"They're taking pictures at each point and geo-coding them," Raja said. "This will be added into the GIS [Geographic Information System] map so when we measure safety of a particular neighborhood, then it won't just be quantitative information. It will be enriched by the kids' perspective."

That youth perspective often can be surprising, Raja and Gouck said they've found.

What an adult might perceive as an uninviting neighborhood, some of the youths saw as evidence that neighbors were trying to make it safe.

"If a neighborhood has a chain-link fence, to me, that feels like they're maybe trying to keep people out. It doesn't feel quite as welcoming," Gouck said. "But they thought it was good. They felt it was a self-contained place for children to play."

> Youths gain skills

Having youths participate also gives them a chance to learn college-level skills and gives them skills to empower themselves in making changes in their own neighborhoods, Gouck and Raja said.

"I think it's pretty awesome," Douth said. "I feel good about myself because I feel like I can survey and see what's going on in our communities and try to tell the people in charge of the city to fix the things we really need to fix and build more playgrounds, fix sidewalks, stuff like that."

Gouck and Raja don't yet know what the data the young people collected this summer will show.

But assessments done last year about the city's food environment already are being used to show policymakers what could be done to improve the kinds of food available to young people in poor neighborhoods.

"We were able to produce target neighborhoods where stuff should go," Gouck said. "Just this week we sent a letter with these maps to each [Common] Council member to say: 'This is what we found' and also inform them about a new state program which provides grants and loans to finance healthy food retail stores.

"That's one way we're able to use the Healthy Kids Healthy Communities assessment data," she said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com