Akin (not his real name) is a smart, 16-year-old black student who attends all honors classes at one of Long Island’s well-known high schools. Akin plays in the school band and volunteers as a junior firefighter and at his local soup kitchen.  Like his father, Akin has always been smaller in stature, hitting just 5’3’’ and about 130 pounds.

He appears to be a healthy teenage boy with normal teenage concerns. Beneath the surface, however, Akin suffers from severely high blood pressure. He learned that at a recent routine health check-up and the news shocked his family.


The discovery also left them with questions—not only about the impact on the longevity of his life, but the opportunities this condition would limit especially if he is required to be on medication indefinitely.

His mother, Sandra, an 8th grade math teacher and single mom of three, left the doctor’s appointment feeling confused about how Akin’s health and future could be so at risk at such a young age.

There’s no question that young people of color-- especially black youth-- live with high risks to their health and even existence. The killings of Trayvon Martin , Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis and most recently Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray each exemplify the extreme risks of being young and black as a result of undeniable, rampant institutional and structural racism.

But we also need to pay attention to the vast range of other risks for young people of color.  Every institution that contributes to our health and well-being (including schools, communities and healthcare systems) could be charged for upholding and exacerbating negative-- sometimes deadly-- outcomes for young people of color.

A key contribution to poor health for young people of color is food access.

Akin’s condition has little to do with Akin himself and everything to do with the neighborhood he lives in. This neighborhood’s shortcomings are the direct result of collective policy decisions that shape the health and well-being of our nation’s young people.

One in five black and latino youth are obese. Black children and young adults are much more at risk for conditions such as diabetes. More than 40 percent of black adults have high blood pressure.

A structural lens tells us that these statistics are not normal, nor are they solely the result of individual choices. Rather, health risks in Black communities are the result of longstanding policy decisions that have led to deep segregation of American neighborhoods and simultaneous disinvestment in communities of color.

While not singular, Akin’s story is a powerful instruction on the ways young people today face a poor health epidemic at the hands of our health and food systems—all playing out at the neighborhood and school level.

On his walk to school, Akin is inundated with unhealthy food options from Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins, to pizza, Chinese takeout, convenience stores, and McDonalds. The  announcement this week that Subway will remove all artifical ingredients from its menu feels like a small beginning, added to recent declarations by Taco Bell and other chains to eliminate artificial ingredients from some food offerings.

But it is not enough.

Fresh, healthy food options are nowhere to be found along the half-mile walk. And rarely found are culturally appropriate healthy foods or small food businesses from local entrepreneurs. This isn’t just in the case in Long Island; this is the reality for many communities around the country.

While the structure of our neighborhoods and food is incredibly important, we also can’t ignore school environments. Initiatives like Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama: 'Don't listen to people who will say that somehow voting is rigged' Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez exchange Ginsburg memories Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day MORE’s Let’s Move focus getting active and incentivizing healthy consumer choices, but are not enough to shift conditions for young people like Akin.  

Updates to nutritional standards in 2012 required schools to add basics of healthy eating like whole grains and low fat milk; just one indication of how far schools need to go. Despite studies that link nutrition education to student health outcomes, many elementary, middle and high school teachers report that, on average, students receive about 3 to 6 hours of nutrition education a year.

Our nation’s schools fail to inform children about the impact of their daily food choices on their health and their futures.

There is a strong disconnect between food, where it comes from, and how it impacts our communities. This gap in nutrition and food education breeds generations of uninformed adults who will likely develop food-related health disparities over the course of their lifetimes. 

Since the  late 1940s, we’ve actively worked to dismantle fresh cooking in schools, instead favoring  a re-heat and eat model that sacrifices health for presumed efficiency. With this model came also the dismantling of kitchen infrastructure in schools, moving the climate even further away from options that are most healthy.

In addition to the actual infrastructure to prepare food, the food sourcing itself is largely problematic.  While groups like Farm to School and School Food Focus are working to ensure higher quality and equitable procurement, we know that most of what young people eat in their school lunch is a result of excesses of grain, wheat and soy—foods the largest food companies need to eliminate. 

Discovering accountability for the lack of healthy, green, fair, affordable food options in neighborhoods is a complex narrative.  A new report from The Center for Social Inclusion (where I am director policy and strategy),“Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System” looks at these policies.

The reality is that all of the policies that led us astray offer the opportunity to reassess, deconstruct and rebuild the food system we not only want, but that is necessary for our survival.

We need to find what policy mechanisms can be leveraged to create the kinds of food businesses that can be led by our communities and serve our communities' needs. We need to ensure these same food businesses can also be economic generators that increase social capital and contribute to economic self-determination in communities of color.

And, finally we need to work toward a shift in our increasingly corporatized food system to tip the scales of power toward our community’s best interest. We must join together and rebuild our food system, for Akin and so many others like him.

Noor is director of Policy & Strategy at the Center for Social Inclusion. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project's Greenhouse at the Center for Global Policy Solutions.