Statistics on childhood obesity in the United States startle Rich Burris.
One in three children in North Carolina are overweight ... Mississippi is ranked as the most obese state ..., he rattles off.
Its part of Richs job to be in the know when it comes to obesity facts.
He and fellow high school students Jessica Harris, Kelin Coleman, Tully Conroy and John Hargett all are employees at Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!), a nonprofit that focuses on tobacco-use prevention; real food, active living (aimed at preventing obesity); access to health care; and substance- abuse prevention.
Their mission: to create change in their communities that will improve teens health.
Education is the biggest thing. We have to take the initiative to criticize things, Jessica said. We go against the social norm.
YES! is a statewide program with locations in Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. Across North Carolina, the program consists of 10 full-time adults and 20 paid youth staff, said Katie Spears, YES! Charlotte adult staff member.
Each year, typically in the spring, YES! Charlotte interviews and hires about five teens to join the organization. This year, untypically, all five are from one school: Myers Park High.
The students work with adults to develop advocacy plans and solutions to problems they say youth may encounter. Their work includes researching food systems and health care, brainstorming healthy food options for children in restaurants, and redesigning school cafeteria menus. Then they survey the community and gather support by writing letters to the editor, interviewing community members, hosting rallies and collecting petition signatures.
From there, the teens speak to school boards and members of the government to present their research and support, hoping to foster positive change, Spears said.
As a YES! employee, Kelin said, she has learned about food deserts, areas where there is little access to affordable, healthy food. She wants her peers to know food deserts arent just in remote areas theyre in Charlotte, too.
Jessica said she has become a vegetarian since she started working with the organization.
I wanted to be conscious of the food I eat and where I shop, Jessica said. Now, my family is healthier as a whole.
The student employees are held accountable for living a healthy lifestyle. Each day, their wellness policy dictates that they eat five servings of vegetables; exercise for 30 minutes; get seven hours of sleep; drink eight glasses of water; not use tobacco products; and floss.
One of their most recent advocacy opportunities came with the Democratic National Convention. Tully said the group set up an information booth during CarolinaFest, the free Labor Day event that kicked off the convention.
In mid-October, the five will help lead the Sixth Annual Southern Obesity Summit in Charlotte, which usually attracts about 100 youths and more adults from 16 southern states.
We want people to take (youths) seriously and respond, Kelin said. And youth want to hear from other youth.