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Dorchester Students Lead Prize-Winning War On Junk Food

Tayon Smith, a 9th-grader at the Codman Academy in Dochester, has just taken the pledge.

The junk-food-free pledge, that is. That means that at least through June, he’ll give up the candy that had sweetened his mornings. He’ll avoid soda and pass up chips and decline cookies. Why?

“I wanted to try something new; go for a better, healthier lifestyle,” he says.

Tayon’s healthy decision makes him part of a swelling trend — at least, here at Codman Academy Charter Public School, the only school in the country that is actually inside a health center, the renowned Codman Square Health Center in a gritty section of Dorchester.

The rising national chorus of concern about youth nutrition and epidemic obesity comes mainly from adults. But at Codman Academy, the kids are in the vanguard of the fight against junk food. And they’ve racked up enough victories that the school’s student-run “Nutrition Action Club” is about to receive a “gold-level” award for outstanding school wellness work from state health and education authorities. Club members are also scheduled to present their Junk Food Free Campaign to the Boston Public Health Commission tomorrow.

Not that the adults are out of the picture. Improving health is a natural priority for the academy, said its director, Meg Campbell. “The biggest public health issues we face in our community — AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, hypertension, family and community violence – there’s not a pill for any of those,” she said. About half of the school’s students are overweight or obese, which is typical for their socioeconomic status.

So the academy aims to help change the culture that contributes to those issues in a variety of ways, from counseling to diabetes screening to extensive sports programs. And when it comes to healthy eating, it has enlisted its students to lead the charge.

The Nutrition Action Club began its campaign against junk food last spring, asking students to take the pledge for April. Nearly everyone did. This year, the pledging begins in March and runs through June, and more than half the school’s 140 students have pledged so far, Meg said. The goal is full participation by next year.

The academy already serves no junk food in its breakfasts and lunches, and aims to persuade students not to bring it in either. It just fended off the latest offer from a vending machine company. Just as pharmacies eventually accepted that they should not be selling cigarettes, Meg said, schools are not the place for junk food.

What’s junk food? Here’s the school’s flyer:

But it’s not enough just to recognize junk food when you see it. You also need to know the alternatives. That explains why, this Monday afternoon, nearly a dozen 9th-grade Codman Academy boys were hard at work chopping and spreading and assembling in a classroom gloriously redolent of garlic. Their creations — bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and mozzarella — would be offered to their schoolmates at 4:30 snack-time. And maybe that would keep some of them from crossing the street to McDonald’s. Continue reading

New President of Carney Hospital: Codman Square Health Center’s Bill Walczak

Bill Walczak


For 36 years, Bill Walczak has done the same thing: run Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center, renowned these days as one of the most innovative health centers in the country.

Now, at 56, he’s making a daringly major change. He has accepted a job as president of Carney Hospital, which is in the same part of town but, shall we say, does not enjoy the same sort of renown. Carney is part of the Caritas Christi hospital chain, which was recently bought by a private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management.

Listen to Bill talk about his decision, and his plans, with Sacha Pfeiffer on WBUR’s All Things Considered today between 6 and 6:30 p.m.

A brief preview: Bill says nothing could have dragged him away from Codman Square except the chance to help another Dorchester institution, and that he plans to reconnect the Carney to the community health centers in Dorchester. He wants the Carney to “reestablish itself in the Dorchester community as the essential community institution it is.”

Stay tuned not just tonight but in coming weeks. How will Bill Walczak try to turn the Carney around???