Boston Students Spark Healthy Eating Innovation

October 29, 2013

For Boston-area students, finding healthy eating options is easier and more fun thanks to an innovative social media project designed by the members of the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC).

Fresh Food Boston, launched in 2013, uses an Instagram-inspired platform to help Boston youth find, share and rate the healthiest foods in the city.

The idea came from a series of discussions hosted by the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council, an advisory body of 40 high school students who bring the attitudes and insights of their peers into direct work with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and other city officials who have the power – and desire – to make changes. 

The MYC members represent neighborhoods and districts all over Boston and regularly hold focus groups, surveys and peer discussions to gather, synthesize and share information and feedback about the wellbeing of youth throughout the area.

In 2012, several of the conversations turned to school lunches. MYC members unearthed an interesting dynamic: According to surveys in the public schools, some students had easy access to healthy meals with diverse and tasty choices. Others didn’t, and felt their school meals needed a major overhaul. Many students weren’t sure what made for healthy snacks, or where to find them nearby.

Eager for a more equitable solution, the MYC invited some heavy hitting local partners—the Boston Public Schools, Boston Department of Food Initiatives and the Boston Urban Mechanics Group—to MYC meetings to explore the healthy options available in and near Boston schools.

The discussion was eye-opening, and led the MYC members to brainstorm how to get that information out to the youth who wanted and needed it most, said Shari Davis, the Director of the Mayor's Youth Council.

Together, the group came up with the idea of a public web-based platform—inspired by the popular photography site and app, Instagram—which would serve as a visual map and tool to find healthy food in the Boston area.  

Then, another Boston heavy-hitter entered the mix: MIT assigned a group of its students the task of building and testing the platform over a semester as part of a course project.

Four months later, Fresh Food Boston went live.

Anyone can submit photos of healthy local eating; submissions are displayed on the site and added to the Fresh Food Map. Each month, Fresh Food Boston runs a contest around a specific theme—for example, “Farmers Markets” or “Food That Looks Like Your Pet.” Visitors then vote for their favorites and the winner receives a “cool, food-related prize,” according to the site.

The platform is public and popular among Boston youth, who are using it to post, see what other people are eating, and find healthy alternatives. It also provides a visual guide to information important to youth and families alike searching for healthy options, including maps of nearby farmers markets and healthy corner stores.

Fresh Food Boston may be the highest-tech idea to come out of the Mayor’s Youth Council, but it is by no means the first.

The Boston MYC has been around for 20 years and credits that longevity in part to the comprehensive and quality training provided to youth members, and to the youth-adult partnerships that are at its core.

Davis says that MYC representatives are expected to do their research before making a pitch to a local leader or official. MYC representatives are trained on how to ask positive questions and how to have conversations with adults—particularly those who aren’t used to collaborating with high school students.

Adults are present at every MYC meeting—not for supervision, but to serve as mentors, especially on effective communication. Says Davis: “the adults help with brainstorming, fleshing out an idea, and navigating important nuances that only a professional career can reveal.”

The MYC also forms a strong adult-youth alliance that extends beyond good rapport with the Mayor. For example, the Boston Bar Association provides volunteer lawyers to mentor the Council members on basic litigation skills and maintaining positive relationships every year.

For each project, “the youth do all the research, collect the information, and test it. They talk to former youth council members and adult staff to get information that follows guidelines, allows for creative thinking and also gets things done,” said Davis.

In this case, working with public health and school officials, as well as MIT, helped make the Fresh Food Boston app idea a viable reality.

What Would You Do with $1 Million for Your City?

The Boston MYC’s track record of effective youth input into local policy recently netted them another big win: In January 2013, Mayor Menino announced the exciting launch of a Youth Participatory Budgeting program, which allows the City of Boston to give $1 million dollars to the MYC to spend on capital improvements—all allocated, dreamed up and directed by the youth. 

At press time, the MYC and its allies, armed with their knowledge of what needs to be improved for youth, are already brainstorming everything from school renovations to a teen lounge in the Boston Commons. They have issued Requests for Proposals to local organizations and businesses and expect to announce the winning projects soon.

“We are so excited about this,” says Davis. “It really shows why Boston is a leader in youth participation in government.”

Davis describes MYC meetings with city leaders as lively and with free-flowing conversation. “It’s great to watch folks who are city leaders with solid careers taking direction of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old high school students,” says Davis. “The adults are always shocked that the young people have such huge capacity. I tell them, ‘I’m shocked that you’re shocked, because I see this every day.'” 

About the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council

The MYC launched in 1994 and is sponsored by the City of Boston, in partnership with Northeastern University and the Boston Bar Association. The MYC is a group of high school juniors and seniors selected to serve as volunteer representatives of every neighborhood in the city. The young advocates outreach to Boston teens, inform them of existing opportunities and listen to suggestions on what the city can do to improve its youth oriented efforts. The MYC has contributed to and led dozens of city-wide policy changes, community improvements and programming for youth, meeting twice a month to participate in team building trainings, leadership seminars and public speaking workshops.

Keep up with the MYC on Facebook & Twitter.


This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at caitlin@sparkaction.org.

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