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  • Writer's pictureArielle Kouyoumdjian

Climate Change, Food Security, and...Running?

There’s a joke in the running world that cross country is an eating competition with some running mixed in. Though the phrase is tongue in cheek, there’s a degree of truth to it. The fastest runners are the ones who fuel themselves best. Eavesdrop on a pair of runners, and within a few minutes, you’re bound to hear them comparing their favorite pre-race carb loading meals, or perhaps just munching on their granola bars in contended silence. But like any competition, athletic or not, cross country doesn’t take place on a level playing field. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find the inequities at its roots.

I spent much of last summer training for a triathlon. The swimming and biking offered a refreshing alternative to pounding the trails on foot 7 days a week, while still promising to keep me in shape for the upcoming cross country season. After morning workouts, I raced off to FACETS, a local food distribution and family support organization. I sorted food and gazed at the line snaking out the door: moms holding newborns, teens, elderly gentlemen, and everyone in between. There had been a time when I’d taken food for granted; now I saw the choice entailed in that privilege. By now, I knew well that runners can’t afford to reject the food they need to be fast, but I hadn’t yet realized that so many children in my suburb couldn’t afford the food they needed just to be kids.

Running enthusiasts wax poetic about how “All you need is a pair of sneakers and a good heart to be a runner.” Yet here was a kindergartener with holes in the soles of her unicorn high-tops. I played checkers with a 10 year old boy whose tongue-less sneakers peeled away from his ankles. I self-consciously hid my Hoka-clad feet under the table. Sneakers are not an inalienable right, and neither is the tremendous amount of high quality calories required to sustain an athlete. Food security is constant access to nutritious food, enough food to lead an active and healthy lifestyle. While I realize that running itself is a privilege that many cannot afford, my work at FACETS showed me that food insecurity is often an obstacle to the kind of movement-filled, energy-consuming, outdoor lifestyle that I enjoyed as a kid. I decided to dedicate my triathlon training to the kids at FACETS, and raise money so that they could afford snacks that would give them the energy to play tag, jump-rope, splash in the pool, and focus in school–as well as shoes that would take them as far as they pleased.

While volunteering at the summer camp for the kids at FACETS, I had hoped that I could take the kids outside to play games in the fresh air. However, by mid-afternoon, temperatures soared into the 90s, and the air felt like boiled glue. It wasn’t safe to venture outdoors. As climate change intensifies, extreme heat will make it more and more dangerous for people of all ages to play, work, and commute outside. Researchers have found that historically underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by climate-change induced heat waves. Lower income regions often lack shady green spaces, leading them to be several degrees warmer than their wealthier counterparts.

Climate change is getting cleverer. Last summer, I woke up at the crack of dawn to beat the heat, and get my run in before my shoes melted off my feet. This summer, however, the impacts of forest fires ravaging Canada rippled all the way out to my Virginia suburb. Air quality was the worst I’d ever seen. It didn’t matter how early I started my run–the smoke was one step ahead. Even at a sluggish pace, my lungs felt sticky, each breath velcroed in my throat. The fires didn’t just crash the party for runners like me. Extracurricular sports games were canceled, school-children were kept indoors at recess, and people of all ages were instructed to avoid venturing outside. Unsurprisingly, lower income districts fare worse when the air quality stinks, because heat and a dearth of pollution-absorbing trees worsen the issue. Climate change will only exacerbate the inequity.

I thought about the kids at FACETS, holed up indoors due to climate-change related dangers for the second summer in a row. I thought about how their faces lit up as I peeled them oranges, like dripping summer suns. I thought about unicorn high-tops with holes in the soles, and ki

ds nursing growling stomachs rather than playing hopscotch. And I decided to raise money for FACETS again this summer through my triathlon training.

My work at the FACETS food distribution and summer camp last year inspired me to found my own non-profit, the Changing Planet Justice Organization. My mission is to equip future generations to tackle climate change and food insecurity through a social justice lens. I’m creating lesson plans and hands-on activities to teach kids like the ones at FACETS about healthy food, taking care of our planet and our bodies, and catalyzing positive change on a changing earth. My hope is that with a little fundraising and a lot of curiosity, learning, and playtime, these kids will get the shoes, snacks, and encouragement they need to take their story and run with it.

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