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"My first hope is that the children will expand their food horizons and develop healthy eating habits," Leung says of her Schweitzer project.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

Much has been written about the Chicago region’s “food deserts”—low-income areas where fresh food sources are difficult to find, and community and individual health suffer as a result.

Vivian Leung is doing something about it. With the overall goal of empowering underserved elementary schoolers and their families to overcome the systemic and social factors that prevent them from choosing fresh, healthy foods, this Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellow and Rush University College of Medicine student has established the after-school “Edible Schoolyard Program” with William H. King Elementary School. Centered on planting and collaboratively sustaining a vegetable garden, the program utilizes a hands-on approach through which elementary school students learn about nutrition, plant biology, and healthy food choices.

Read on for insights into Leung’s motivation for tackling the problem of “food deserts” at a local level—and her ideas about why it’s so important to solve that same problem at a national level.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I enjoyed fresh fruits and vegetables from our backyard almost all year round. When I arrived in Chicago for college, the reduced accessibility and affordability of fresh produce at local markets was a shock to my health and habits.

I understood that the regional climate did not lend itself to generating the bounty of fresh produce that I had been accustomed to, but I did not understand why in some neighborhoods fresh fruits and vegetables are close to impossible to find.  Soon I learned more about “food deserts” and their health consequences, and found disparities in food access just down the street from my medical school. Missing gardening and seeing the effects of metabolic syndrome day after day, I decided to engage some local schoolchildren in some of my favorite childhood pastimes: playing around in the dirt, cooking, and eating.

My passion for good food, environmental stewardship and working with growing minds came together nicely in this project. I had been planning my own organic veggie garden for a couple years; I was just waiting to acquire some land I could call my own to grow my own food.

The Schweitzer Fellowship provided a means of not only funding my dream garden, but also the opportunity to share it with children that could greatly benefit from it.  I was lucky to find an elementary school that has partnered with Rush University in the past and eager to start another collaborative project.  This spring, the after-school “Edible Schoolyard Program” has been a great success and I look forward to expanding once school restarts in the fall!

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

My first hope is that the children will expand their food horizons and develop healthy eating habits. Many of the children I have worked with are already excited about eating fruits and veggies, but systemic and social factors may prevent them from choosing them over unhealthy foods.  This is why I hope to work closer with the parents and the school to ensure more healthy options are provided for their children. This will be a major challenge, as working with existing structures and systems can be complicated.

A second hope I have is to generate some social responsibility in the students. I want them not only to take ownership of and to tend the garden, but also to translate their work to caring for their communities and the Earth as a whole. As they learn to practice healthy eating habits, they can also keep an eye on the health of their siblings, their friends, and their family members, most of which live with diabetes and/or heart disease.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

My view may be a bit biased, but I believe that the most pressing health issue in the United States at this time is obesity, particularly childhood obesity.  First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her mission to combat this epidemic because it jeopardizes the health and future of our country.  Medically, economically and physically, obesity impacts the individual, his or her communities, and our nation as a whole in profound ways.

Preventing and managing obesity is a complex issue with cultural and socioeconomic factors. Advising parents on how to feed their children can be particularly challenging, as there may be resistance to suggestions to improve one’s parenting. A multifaceted approach must be used to bring down the staggering statistics on childhood obesity.  A combination of healthy eating and physical activity is the only reliable and sustainable way of fending off obesity, and the responsibility to instill these healthy habits in American children lies with both individuals and the government, as long as children spend time at home and in schools.

Our government can implement policies and incentives in our food systems that make nutritious foods more affordable and accessible. Vulnerable populations need a bit of extra help before they can help themselves. For example, establishing grocery stores that offer affordable, nutritious produce instantly offers an alternative to fast-and-easy but unhealthy processed foods, which may currently be the only realistic option for meals in “food deserts.” For children, we need healthier school lunches with less sodium, sugar, and fat. When funding is tight, this cannot take a back seat. With the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act this year, now is the perfect time to let our representatives know what our schoolchildren need for lunch in order to perform better in the classroom and to lead healthier lifestyles.

With our government juggling so many priorities at this time, we must also take action at the community level, getting parents, teachers, and others involved in providing healthy foods and increasing physical activity as PE classes continue to get cut. Making public spaces safe for play, establishing school/community gardens, and supporting Farm to School Programs are just some of the ways everyone can get involved.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I was surprised to find so many people excited to be a part of my project! Classmates, school faculty, and parents at King Elementary all got involved. It was inspiring to see so many people from all walks of life volunteer their time and resources.

Another exciting surprise was to see that organic veggies really can grow in a concrete jungle! We were worried that nothing would grow, especially with the unpredictable weather patterns we had this spring. Students and staff alike were excited to see their efforts and patience provide a bounty of delicious, healthy food to taste and share.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow allows me to be among like-minded people dedicated to enhancing the health of those in my community. The Fellowship has not only made my project possible with financial support, but it also provided help with project development and constant guidance. Working in a new community can be intimidating, and the network of mentors and resources provided by the fellowship makes the experience less scary.

Vivian Leung is a Schweitzer Fellow in Chicago, IL. Click here to read more about The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program (hosted by Health & Medicine Policy Research Group) and the Fellows like Leung it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Leung’s efforts to address childhood obesity, click here. Thanks to a matching grant from a generous anonymous donor, your gift will be doubled!