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Healthy Peer Pressure

May 28th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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Once a month a group of teens gather together to discuss ways to get both their friends and their communities living healthier. They cook, talk and, of course, eat.


Photos by Matt Campbell

-Big Veggie Hoagie »

Sometimes when kids from different neighborhoods get together, it can be a problem. Take the classic example of West Side Story. This teen gathering in South Philadelphia does involve knives, but they’re for chopping vegetables. Each month the crew gets together, half are from West Philly, half from South Philly. They’re also an ethnic division, the West Philly teens are mostly African American, the teens from South Philly are mostly Cambodian Americans.

Keith Chan and Sarahn Sankofa washing dishes before PUFFA dinner

They alternate locations and cooks. Tonight, South Philly’s in the kitchen. Looking slightly uncomfortable in his hairnet, 18-year-old David Seng carefully chops onions for veggie hoagies. “This is a whole learning process for us since we are still young, and this is helping us to eat healthy.”

But this isn’t another program where the kids are just learning to cook. In the main room, 26-year-old Tiffany Spraggins, the youth engagement leader, stands in front of the group of about 30 teenagers. “We are here to discuss how we can change our school food, right? We are here to discuss how we can change our food access in our communities.” So Spraggins gets the kids talking. They discuss health and nutrition issues in their communities, and what they can do to make things better.

“Our gatherings are called SALT and PUFFA,” she says. SALT and PUFFA, clever. Remember the hit? “Push it?” The reference to the 80’s hip hop trio is fun for the teenagers, but it is more than just a catchy name. “SALT actually stands for Students Advocating for Lifestyle Transformations and of course PUFFA, which stands for the Philadelphia Urban Food and Fitness Alliance.”

One goal is to remind the kids that they have a voice and with this voice they can make changes. 17-year-old D’atwan Nelson hears this message loud and clear, he addresses the room like a natural born leader. “We all have something to say and if you don’t say anything that means you are ignorant, not ignorant as in, ‘oh, you ghetto’ or something like that, ignorant as in you are not using your voice.”

And for the kids who are not so fond of public speaking, they can still spread the word. David Seng created a petition to get his school to offer healthier choices in the cafeteria. He says at first students were reluctant to sign, “most of them didn’t agree, but at the same time I tried to make them reconsider their choice since it’s actually important for them to eat healthy.” In the end he got 80 of his peers to sign.


How to fold a wrap (the good way)

16-year-old Sarahn Sankofa uses enthusiasm to sway her friends, “they just hate it. But I am always talking about like guys, let’s not go to McDonalds or you guys should try something new that’s in the lunch line. Because we’re trying to get broccoli into the schools, we’re trying to get eggplant. So, I really go out of my way to tell my friends you guys should really try that. I worked really hard to get that.”

And then there’s the sure fire way to get a point across to almost any teenager, send them a text message! Each month the SALT and PUFFA crew votes on 5 texts to send out. “My favorite is don’t eat swine, eat off the vine. I saw one today it said, double cheeseburger $1, cheesesteak $5, eating to be healthy to be healthy priceless. I said wow, that’s really cool.”

Puffa Video

Check out this video produced by Puffa Youth that shares the students thoughts on school food.


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Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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