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Written by Mandy Yokim
Anyone familiar with the recent history of Pittsburgh knows that we are a much healthier city than we were 20 years ago.
We have better restaurant variety and renewed focus on physical activity, more urban gardens and farmers’ markets, inspired community programming and increased commitment by local government to health-related issues.
No doubt, we have far to go before we add “Most Healthy City” to our list of accolades but great work is being done by many.
In our continuing series on people making Pittsburgh a better place (see 5 people making Pittsburgh a more livable place for all), we interviewed these 5 impressive change makers who are making inroads in health, from a food revolution in schools to addressing hunger citywide.
Improving how we eat
A sample to-do list for Leslie Bonci: Fly to Florida to consult with Major League baseball players about their nutrition. Film a healthy food segment for Dr. Oz. Talk with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers about their diets and sports performance.
As director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, the slim and energetic Bonci is a national presence (like her counterpart, the equally impressive Dr. Vonda Wright). And she has learned that there is not one-size-fits-all with eating and it’s ok to start with small changes.
“If we could be a little bit more mindful of what is on the plate and what it is we’re eating, that could go a long way to really having Pittsburghers make their mark on health,” she notes.
Her advice: take your favorite foods (that may not be so healthy) and complement them with healthier ones.
“There are foods we have grown up with, cherish and don’t want to give up,” she notes. “But what we can do is complement those foods with others—such as pierogies in a whipped butter with onions and a side salad of a red cabbage vinaigrette slaw, or a hot sausage sandwich with onions and peppers with a bowl of vegetable soup.”
She is a big believer in “coloring up the plate” with fresh veggies and fruits because it “brings the eye thrill and the gut fill without being stuffed.”
But it’s not just what’s on the plate. It’s “resizing the plate, sitting and savoring what we eat, growing some of what we eat, knowing who grows our food. All of this makes us food savvy and healthwise.”
Last summer she started Camp Delicious, a cooking camp to empower kids about all things food–with field trips to Grow Pittsburgh and tasting new foods that kids have picked themselves.
“We were really trying to get kids to understand where food comes from and then what to do with it once you have it,” Bonci says.
The kids were involved in every aspect from food harvesting to food preparation. “An exposed palate is an educated palate. They all tasted everything from broccoli soup to edamame hummus to carrot/ginger juice. When you are more involved and engaged in cooking, you are more likely to try.”
The lifelong Pittsburgher is encouraged by the direction Pittsburgh is going. It makes me smile to think of what is happening in the city. It’s about time.”
Making the whole county healthier
“There are three behaviors which contribute to the four major chronic diseases and contribute to over 60% of mortality,” says Dr. Karen Hacker who moved here from Boston more than a year ago to take over as director of the Allegheny County Health Department.
“Those are smoking, physical inactivity and poor nutrition. Having looked at our indicators across the county, we’ve got work to do in all those areas.”
Hacker feels that the Pittsburgh region is ready to move forward and has what it takes to be a healthier community. If we can’t do it, who can? she asks.
“What was interesting to me about this job in Pittsburgh was that there was one county health department that included the city. There was a board that was really interested in change. There were a number of foundations and universities. Basically, everybody really seemed to be interested in collaborating and working together to get things done.”
Enter the Live Well Allegheny Campaign, a county-wide initiative launched last January to improve the health and wellness of Allegheny County.
“In this area, there are so many wonderful community organizations doing all kinds of great work but there didn’t seem to be one group that was pulling everybody together,” says Hacker. “We all agree that these are agenda items so how do we work collaboratively to move the needle on these things?’”
Hacker cites the objective of Live Well Allegheny as an umbrella organization where a wide variety of health-related issues can receive attention–issues like mental health, environmental health and decreasing violence.
In researching health indicators throughout the city, Hacker noticed major health inequalities (both geographic and racial) as well as high poverty levels. “It’s got me thinking more and more about economic development, about housing, about transportation, about all of these social determinants of health and how I can work with those organizations, which aren’t the typical organizations that health departments work with, to push the agenda on things which will ultimately make a difference in our residents’ health.”
Hacker’s words of wisdom for a healthier Pittsburgh are a call to action: “There’s only so much that institutions and organizations and government can actually do. We need to do our best, but individuals have to take that responsibility as well, to make the small changes that ultimately make a difference.”
Lunch today? Penne pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella accompanied by a fresh spinach salad with chickpeas, along with a whole grain roll and a pear. All for $2.25.
If you’re a student at The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, you’re luckier than most in getting a healthy and delicious lunch like this every school day.
As Food Service Director at The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Kelsey Weisgerber credits their partnership with the Community Kitchen of Pittsburgh (CKP) which cooks 80% of the meals from scratch.
But it’s more than that. “We could put beautiful food on their lunch tray, but unless our students understand its purpose and why it is there, we are not serving them to the fullest extent,” she adds.
Weisgerber, who co-founded the Food Revolution Cooking Club in 2012 and now serves as an ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in Pittsburgh, says, “There is a huge opportunity in our city for more entrepreneurs to follow this type of model that provides from scratch, real and affordable meals to schools.”
In other cities, companies such as Revolution Foods have been instrumental in providing better food to students. “I hope that we can see CKP expand across our region, along with the formation of other well-intentioned food service management companies.”
Weisgerber’s words of wisdom for improving the city’s health on a personal level: get your kids actively involved with food. “By making food exciting, celebrated and adventurous for kids you can form positive relationships and connections with kids and that food.”
“If you have kids, volunteer at their school: do a tasting, assist a teacher, run an after-school club once a month, but make food present,” she advises. “If you don’t have school-aged kids find other ways to get involved around food and education, check out Slow Food Pittsburgh, Grow Pittsburgh or any number of outstanding local organizations that are championing better food for our city.”
Advocating for the underserved
Each day Ken Regal climbs the six flights of steps to his house, which is on one of the steepest sections of one of the steepest streets in the city. It’s one of many things he does to stay healthy.
As executive director at Just Harvest, Regal attempts to keep whole communities healthy by addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
“We’re not a healthy city unless everyone’s got the basics and opportunity to succeed. When we leave people behind economically, we are not a healthy city no matter how healthy some of us are.”
Serving on the Board of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center and on the steering committee of the Southwestern PA Food Security Partnership, Regal has made the mission of Just Harvest his life’s work.
“There are fundamental moral rules about how we should behave as a community. One of those rules is that people should have a right to enough food to eat. It’s not an act of kindness for us to give people enough food to eat. People have a moral claim to enough food to eat.”
One way that Just Harvest helps people get access to food? Food stamps.
“We help about 1,000 households each year apply for Food Stamps (SNAP), and guide them through the rest of the often complex application process. Because Food Stamps are all electronic now, with the benefits on a debit-like card, we run ‘Fresh Access,’ an electronic transaction program at nine area farmers’ markets to enable people to use their food stamps to shop for high-quality, affordable food.”
Regal knows that there are persistent stereotypes about food stamps and poverty but part of his job is to educate the community about the realities of not having enough food.
In the mid-1980s he was instrumental in organizing a successful campaign to bring the National School Breakfast Program to Pittsburgh Public Schools. Now he is working with the City of Pittsburgh to expand access to free summer meals at community sites across the city. And those school breakfasts? He wants more of them.
While Regal appreciates the many positives about the health of the Pittsburgh community, he laments the shortcomings.
“Too many people are comfortable with the idea that communities like Duquesne, Braddock and Homewood-Brushton are desperately poor. They lack the most basic kinds of resources like a place to shop for groceries, basic housing, an adequate safety net to make sure that folks in need are taken care of, bus service so that people can get to jobs, health insurance. “
And we must mention: Dr. Jeanette South-Paul of the East Liberty Family Health Care Center is a strong advocate for underserved families and the elimination of health disparities. A practicing physician, she works as a director in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh on projects such as educating minority women on cardiovascular disease and assessing barriers to care for teen mothers.
Advocating for more cooking, less food waste
Leah Lizarondo would argue that yes, you do have time to cook a healthy dinner. “Take a close look at where you really put your time. On average, Americans spend about 27 minutes a day on food preparation but almost 2.5 hours watching TV,” she says.
Her advice? Find time to cook. It’s a good first step to good health.
Leah blogs about food online at Brazen Kitchen, she writes about food and more for NEXTpittsburgh and other local publications and has written for NPR and Oprah.com.
Last month she spoke at the Helping Women Helps the World Lecture Series with Dr. Karen Hacker about “The Crossroads of Food, Health and Innovation.”
“I love that the topic was food, health and innovation—three points whose intersection is where my sweet spot lies,” she says.
As a local ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and a Farm-to-Table advocate, Lizarondo is passionate about making sure the fresh food produced here actually gets used.
Food stamps at farmers’ markets? Yes. More focus on local farming? Great. But in her TEDx talk last year, Lizarondo addressed what she feels is the final disconnect in the farm-to-table initiative—people aren’t cooking anymore and 30 to 40% of the fresh produce is going to waste.
“The problem is not just ensuring we have enough supply. Those who have access need to cook again, to use this abundance of produce that we have. We also need to redirect food that is about to go to waste to those who need it, those who are food insecure,” she says.
This year, Lizarondo and her friend Gisele Fetterman, the dynamic founder of Braddock’s Free Store, plan to launch 412FoodRescue, a new initiative that will essentially “rescue” fresh, perishable food that often goes to waste at places like grocery stores and restaurants and redistribute them to organizations that work in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods most affected by poverty. This project will supplement the outstanding work being done by existing agencies like the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
“412 Food Rescue will use technology to facilitate rapid response by linking donors, recipients, our trucks and volunteers. Think Uber for food rescue with a UPS twist,” says Lizarondo. 412 Food Rescue is one of the challenges that developers will take on in next month’s Steel City Codefest.
As for cooking? “We need to think like marketers—we need to “train” people how to use our product (vegetables and produce) so that they use them more,” says Lizarondo.
That’s where her soon-to-be launched social enterprise comes into play. Lizarondo is currently working with Idea Foundry to incubate the project and is scheduled to launch later this year. Lizarondo’s goal? “To make food education accessible to every household in our city.”