Young leaders address local health inequities

Root causes of health

August 11, 2022

Addressing health issues at their roots requires a collective approach that incorporates community voices, including emerging leaders. While young people are oftentimes an untapped reservoir for changemaking, they play a vital role in addressing the social and structural determinants of health. It is important to acknowledge them as agents of change for healthier communities.

We connected with project team leads Grace Parker Zielinski from Tompkins County, New York, and Rose Shin from Deerfield Beach, Florida, to learn more about how they are working in tandem with young people to address the root causes of health inequity and the impact these young leaders have had on their communities.

In Deerfield Beach, 18% of residents live in poverty and over 82% of their public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. To meet food needs, the project teams lead organization, Florida Introduces Physical Activity and Nutrition to Youth, or FLIPANY, introduced and evolved year-round efforts to alleviate the needs of Deerfield Beach Middle School families who do not have enough food throughout the year.

Some of their programmatic efforts concentrated on providing food through an on-campus food pantry, solidifying sustainable food sources and utilizing a school garden for education on both nutrition and food waste recovery efforts. However, a key focus for their project team was around student engagement and leadership.

We are engaging in efforts to promote youth leadership among Deerfield Beach Middle School, high schoolers and college youth,” Shin said. Throughout the last two years, FLIPANY focused on a number of initiatives, including a student health hub, a high school/college intern program, a teacher training project, and volunteer/community service projects.”

One of their projects provided hundreds of middle schoolers with nutrition education through physical education classes and a virtual wellness challenge.

Up in Tompkins County, Zielinski and her team took a slightly different approach to engaging young people in providing key resources to their community.

We spent the early part of our project doing a needs assessment to develop stronger relationships with partners and analyze available data,” Zielinski said. One of our major findings was just how underutilized many of our existing community resources are due to information gaps, bureaucratic processes, and difficulties in managing systems without enough social support.”

To help bridge this gap, the Tompkins County team implemented a Student Resource Navigator program that deploys students in health care settings to initiate and track referrals to community resources. This cross-sector approach helps connect residents more effectively to the communitys underutilized resources.

Whatever individualsreasons are, we know we need as many pathways as possible to meet people where they are, listen to them to find out where they are experiencing barriers to accessing resources, and facilitate stronger connections,” Zielinski said.

Encouraging these young leaders to engage in health equity work has undeniably had a profound impact on Zielinski and Shin’s communities.

The efforts of these projects ensured that the voices of community members contributed to increasing food access, decreasing food waste, and building health initiatives in their own community,” Shin explained. It also allowed community stakeholders an active voice in the health efforts targeting their community.”

It has also encouraged civic stewardship and career choices that improve population health and equity for young people to pursue in the years to come.

Being in a college town, we have the incredible resource of passionate young people looking for experiences that will both prepare them for their future careers and have an impact on our communitys health equity,” Zielinski said. Through this project, students get experiences that make them more effective future leaders in health care and public health fields, while community members have more support to improve their health and well-being and share their experiences to influence future programs and policies.”