by Aric Sleeper, Good Times
Watsonville youth work with Santa Cruz METRO to stock up on healthier snacks
For the hungry bus riders of Santa Cruz County, the only options currently found in vending machines at Santa Cruz METRO stations are sugary drinks and junk food like donuts, candy bars, and high-fat chips. The lack of choices and a desire for something healthier spurred Watsonville-based youth advocacy group Jovenes SANOS to take action.
“All it takes is someone to step up,” says Jovenes SANOS member Miguel Murillo, who attends Cabrillo College and has been involved with the group for three years.
Jovenes was inspired to tackle the issue of vending machine fare after working with officials like Chair of the Board of Directors of Santa Cruz METRO and Watsonville City Councilman Daniel Dodge. Utilizing recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and similar policies in other California counties, Dodge worked with the youth to draft and pass a policy last August that seeks to fill at least 50 percent of the METRO offices and transit center’s vending machines with healthier drinks and snacks.
The METRO’s existing vendors were keen on the idea, and worked with Jovenes to replace half of the soda and candy in METRO office machines with options like coconut water, fruit juice, and nuts.
“I am very proud of our young people,” says Dodge. “They saw the problems kids their age faced with childhood obesity and family members with diabetes, noticed that the vendors around their schools were not providing healthy food alternatives, and decided to take action.”
The United Way of Santa Cruz County created Jovenes SANOS (or “Healthy Youth” in English) seven years ago after reviewing the 2005 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project (CAP) Report’s findings about the rising rate of overweight and obese local youth, particularly in South County.
According to the 2012 CAP, the percentage of survey respondents who are overweight or obese increased from approximately 50 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2011. In 2008, Santa Cruz County ranked 40th (with number one being the best) out of the 66 California counties for overweight children under the age of 5.
With this data in mind, Jovenes SANOS masterminded several projects in the last few years under the guidance of Project Director and United Way Community Organizer Kymberly Lacrosse, including the “Get Out, Get Fit” program and an ordinance that encourages restaurants in Watsonville to provide healthier options on their menus.
Since taking over her role three and a half years ago, Lacrosse says the group has “shifted our focus to policy and, most importantly, relationships with each other, with our partners, and the community.”
In light of the health-inducing projects that Jovenes SANOS has completed, and efforts undertaken by other local agencies and nonprofits, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded Santa Cruz County the $25,000 “Roadmaps to Health” prize on Feb. 20. United Way is giving Jovenes SANOS $5,000 of the award to implement future projects like their upcoming “Snack-Fest” and changing the options in METRO stations countywide.
“Snack-Fest” will take place at the Downtown Santa Cruz METRO Station this spring, and will feature games and samples of the nutritious foods that will soon be available in local transit centers.
Beyond its accomplishments in the community, Jovenes SANOS aims to shape participants into passionate advocates for their peers and their community, with a “sabiduria,” or wisdom, beyond their years.
“Before you can change your community you have to change yourself,” says member Jose Vasquez, “and learn how to make yourself better before you try to change someone else or inform someone else on something they can do.”