This past Thursday, four Swatties met with two members of the Chester community in a small coffee shop in the ‘Ville to tackle the problem of unhealthy eating in Chester. The students were part of a course on making democracy work in America. The Chesterites were members of the DelCo Alliance, an organization devoted to environmental justice. Yet they were brought together by the topic of food, propelled by the belief that food choices are intricately tied up with environmental issues, and that only healthy citizens can have the energy and spirit to participate in local democracy.
After a dynamic session of brainstorming, we decided upon a plan to engage in a comprehensive community assessment—interviews, focus groups, observation—to elucidate some very key points about what is currently being done, what are people’s attitudes toward healthy eating, and what opportunities exist for us to craft effective programs. In doing this, we mitigated an instinctive and oft-disastrous tendency to rush into programs and interventions that waste resources and do not mould to the community’s needs and perceptions.
Apart from the lofty vision that good health equals good participation, the theories and practices concerning civic engagement explored in the classroom will doubtlessly seep into our work as this project progresses. Will we become analogous to the social institutions that Verba et al. describe, which cultivate psychological participation and serve as loci for both recruitment and development of organizing skills? Can we tap into the existing social structure, especially the countless churches in Chester that cultivate participation among the poor? Will the three resources of time, money, and skills also become necessary prerequisites for citizens of Chester before they can achieve healthy eating practices? (Time to cook meals, money to buy healthy foods, and skills to recognize healthy choices.)
Yet crucial questions remain. How can this energy be translated into productive, organized, and ultimately meaningful change? Can the tendency for the disadvantaged to care more about basic human needs and personal issues (Verba et al.) be leveraged to motivate concern for long-term health? How can we measure the impact of our actions, the ultimate assessment of what our efforts amount to: effective, replicable model or hopeless student project?