Service-Learning Project Focuses on Healthy Cultural Food Options Near Boston School

John Bleakney

When a Burger King prepared to open across the street from Marlon Solomon’s son’s school, Boston Preparatory Charter School in Hyde Park, Solomon saw several problems.

Solomon, a civil engineer who leads the nonprofit Afrimerican Culture Initiative, researched density of fast-food restaurants near schools in neighborhoods. He found that predominantly Black or minority neighborhoods tend to be more dense with fast food restaurants near schools, while their mostly white counterparts often had healthy food options in school or did not have fast food within walking distance from schools.

In fall 2020, a Northeastern co-op course teamed up with Solomon to work toward equitable food options and nutrition for Black youth in Boston. The project, the Cultural Nutrition Program, challenged engineering students to explore healthy ethnic food options near Boston Preparatory School.

Boston City Councillor Richard Arroyo presented the Afrimerican Culture Initiative with an official resolution commending the group’s ‘design and build’ of antiracist projects and initiatives.

“I am very happy that the work the students are doing is helping the Afrimerican Culture Initiative and that it was recognized by the City of Boston,” said John Bleakney, a co-op faculty member within the College of Engineering. “It also says the work that the students are doing is helpful to the organization. It’s great to be recognized.”

Bleakney’s students spent the fall of 2020 studying redlining in Boston and the city’s history of structural racism. The second phase of the project came in Summer 2020, when a new group of students explored ways to counteract fast food options so close to the school.

“Our goal was to measure different variables affected by redlining such as supermarkets, schools, and police stations,” said Nicholas Zhang, BS/MS’22, chemical engineering, engineering management, who participated in the Fall 2020 course. “This was a project that was important to me especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement and COVID-19 pandemic.”

Nicole Madonna, ME’23, energy systems, who took the Spring section of the course, enjoyed putting together the school’s cultural calendar and learning the recipes and traditions of different cultures.

“This project taught me new skills in establishing a project plan from an idea,” Madonna said. “Marlon had the idea to bring cultural and nutritional lunches into the school. We learned from his research and the background of the project how and why this was important to the community, which is primarily students and people of color. Marlon gave our team the opportunity to turn that into a reality.”

The fall course centered on research of the effects of redlining. In the spring, the Northeastern team created a cultural calendar to offer Boston Prep opportunities to learn about diverse cultures and introduce them to nutritional and cultural meals. Bleakney’s students met with dieticians and the school’s chef to determine realistic constraints of the program. They also analyzed survey results from focus groups.

This service-learning program was a pilot program that Bleakney hopes can expand to serve schools throughout Boston.

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