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?’”