For the second straight year, students at three local high schools are working toward a summer trip to Colorado—but more importantly, they hope massive projects they’ve taken on enjoy long-term success.

Lindblom Math and Science Academy, located in Englewood, as well as Morgan Park High School (MPHS) and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS), are set to compete in the Aspen Challenge, in which high school students from several major cities take on challenges to better their communities.

Once again, the Chicago competition will feature 20 high schools from Chicago Public Schools, with teams set to make presentations at the Museum of Science and Industry on April 6 in front of judges who are well known in the city.

At Lindblom, this year’s team hopes to repeat the success their classmates experienced last spring. That group, which was called MoneyLYFE and promoted financial responsibility, was selected to visit Aspen and promote their project at a summer festival.

This year’s team, which features two members from Beverly/Morgan Park, is called SUPERFood (Students Understanding Preparing and Eating Real Food) and has accepted the challenge to “break the junk food cycle” and encourage peers and families to eat real food after seeing classmates enter school every day eating unhealthy snacks.

Members have been busy in recent weeks building eight large, birdhouse-like structures in which people can donate or take healthy, non-perishable food. They already have about 10 places around the school that have agreed to install a structure, and they hope to enlist more. Students felt there wasn’t enough local access to healthy food.

“Basically, we’re trying to get everybody to change their food preferences,” said senior Alyssa Diaz, of the East Side. “If they’re trying all of these nutritional foods, they’ll probably be more likely to go to a Whole Foods and get foods that—you’re able to know where they came from, what’s exactly in them—are real food.

The structures the students are building are similar to the “Little Free Libraries” that are posted in the local community, in which people can donate or take books. Lindblom’s shelved structures will house healthy snacks such as crackers, granola bars and even baby food, and according to the students, a nearby elementary school has agreed to install a structure, as have a police station and two churches.

The students are also keeping food journals to track the healthy food they’re eating.

Freshman Robert Stewart, of Englewood, said he noticed a few bad habits.

“In my food journal, I noticed that I eat a lot of unhealthy foods daily,” he said. “And I’ve talked to my mom about it, and we just tried to make small changes.”

Diaz said that when she began her journal, she saw she was eating too much fast food because her family was too busy to make a home-cooked meal.

It was a rude awakening.

“It just made me realize how much processed food is going into me,” Diaz said, “and it made me realize exactly why I feel the way I feel throughout the day. I don’t have any energy; I have trouble sleeping. It affects your mood; and it affects your brain, and I don’t think people understand that.”

According to Teacher Gina Caneva, a Beverly resident who is coaching the team for the second year in a row, Greg Zanis, who has become well-known for building crosses in Englewood that display the names of those killed by gun violence, is assisting with the project, helping the many students who haven’t used power tools before. Caneva also hopes to develop a class at Lindblom that preaches healthy, sustainable eating.

Freshman Isabel Swift, of Morgan Park, said the group is focused on installing the mini pantries in food deserts, so the nearby community might not see the structures any time soon. However, she hopes the project has a long-term effect.

“We want to keep this going, so people will always have good food to eat in [that area], and then maybe spreading to somewhere like Beverly,” she said. “But our main focus is on areas that are five miles away from a grocery store, where people don’t really have much access to food.”

At MPHS, a team has also accepted the junk food challenge—and students are improving their culinary skills. The team has begun organizing “taste tests” in which students who are in the top-10 percent of their classes are invited to sample healthy foods the team made. Recently, the team, thanks to a donation from County Fair Foods, made chicken salad and served fruit.

They plan to hold the impromptu meals every week, and they’re also surveying participants about how they feel as they try to eat healthier.

Nyah Addison said she and her classmates want to eat healthy—but they need healthy options.

“We all eat a lot of junk food, and it’s not necessarily just because we want to eat junk food,” Addison said. “We only have access to other stuff. … The cafeteria food isn’t pleasant.”

And if students aren’t eating right, Aleya Griffin said, their schoolwork suffers.

“If you’re hungry all the time or you’re eating junk food all the time,” she said, “you’re not going to pay attention as well in school.”

As they move forward, students said, they’re also exploring the idea of creating a garden club at MPHS. Teacher Tim Gronholm, who is coaching the team, also said he hopes to work with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to obtain fresh fruits and grains that the students could use to make meals for families in the community.

“We can take it a little bit further,” Gronholm said, “than just the walls of the building.”

According to the team, many students go home hungry every day. That led them to accept the challenge to implement long-term changes that have positive effects.

“Because food’s not going away,” Christopher Orr said. “Everybody has to eat.”

At CHSAS, the team called CYEN (Chicago Youth Empowering Neighborhoods) is taking on the challenge to prevent acts of violence and encourage peace among their peers. Members are inviting students from nearby schools—starting with MPHS—to attend workshops and build connections.

They hope to build “one big community” in the city.

“We’re not going to be like, ‘This is Morgan Park; this is Mt. Greenwood,’” student Mae Noriega said. “We’re going to be like, ‘This is Chicago.’”

For now, the students said, they have invited eight MPHS students to join their group. They hope students at schools near MPHS will then join the effort.

“We’re going to see what we can do as students,” said Noriega, who lives in Mt. Greenwood. “That sounds big, but we think we can do it.”

Students originally planned to reach out to Englewood, they said, but they worried it might be too far away.

Still, student Mariana Beltran, who lives in the Midway neighborhood, wants to change the reputation of Englewood and its schools, which are often in the news for tragic crimes.

“Some people think of Englewood, and then they think, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t want to go over there,’” Beltran said. “They’re scared about it—and that’s what we’re trying to help out. So, if they hear about that school, they can think of something better than just bad news. For example, if Englewood goes on the news for just one accident, then that’s what they’re known for.”

CHSAS Teacher Diana Krnjaca, who is coaching the team, said plans are in the works to host fundraisers and examine job opportunities in areas affected by violence.

She said she’s amazed that students are taking a lead role.

“I found it really awesome that you had high school students who are saying, ‘This is a problem; and it’s been a problem for a long time; and it’s clear that the adults have too much going on in their lives to take care of it or maybe there’s just too much politics behind it, so let’s just step in and do it ourselves—because this is us. It’s affecting us,’” Krnjaca said. “And so I just take the back seat and watch them on this ride, and it’s awesome.”

Ideally, students said, CYEN members will take their message home to parents, who can then lend their help.

Student Jessica Putman, of Beverly, also hopes the project can bring bigger changes across the city. Team members said they’re confident heading into the upcoming presentation, but they want their group to last long beyond the Aspen Challenge.

“We don’t want it to just be April 6,” Putman said. “We want to keep it going.”

Lindblom’s team includes coaches Gina Caneva and student Gabriela Morales—who was part of last year’s winning team—as well as Isabel Swift (Morgan Park), Kaitlyn Kirk (Beverly), Alyssa Diaz, Robert Stewart, Abigail Dizon, Armoni Taffe, Marleny Ochoa and Curtis Robinson.

The MPHS team includes Coach Tim Gronholm, as well as students Aleya Griffin, Nyah Addison, Kayla Stewart, LaTaylor Johnson, Christopher Orr, Justin James, Ben Dweh and Nimar Burnett. 

The CHSAS team includes coaches Diana Krnjaca and Brittany Hoover, as well as students Mae Noriega, Jessica Putman, Mariana Beltran, Alejandro Arellano, Amaya Butler, Nazar Muhammad, Eiffel Bayba, and Nick Doran.

This year’s Aspen Challenge-Chicago speakers and organizers include Joan Haug, who offered the challenge to break the junk food cycle; Chico Tillmon, program manager for Cease Fire Illinois Cure Violence, who presented the challenge to stop violence and promote peace; and Robin Robinson, a special advisor for community affairs in the Chicago Police Department and former TV news anchor.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church, and former Chicago Bears player Israel Idonije are also scheduled to speak at the presentations.

For more information on the Aspen Challenge, visit aspenchallenge.org.