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"At the end of the meal, one of the boys said to me, 'I didn’t know brown pasta could taste good!'" Rich says, referring to the multigrain pasta she used in a healthy cooking class at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club.

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Mariah Rich immersed herself in the Waltham community—particularly as a volunteer with Waltham Kids Club (an after-school program for elementary school children in Waltham public housing communities) and as an intern with Healthy Waltham (a civic group in the CDC’s Healthy Communities model that works to improve community health and well-being).

“Over the course of my four years with Kids Club, I observed the challenges faced by many of the children in terms of maintaining a healthy weight,” Rich says. “To address that challenge, I introduced mandatory physical activity into the program and overhauled its Dunkaroos, Doritos, and juice-filled snacks to include whole grains, fresh produce, and water.”

She didn’t stop there. Recognizing an overarching need to address the children’s social and built environments, she worked with Healthy Waltham to start one of the first school gardens in Waltham at the Stanley Elementary School.

“Working with Healthy Waltham, I realized that some of the most powerful interventions are those that engage communities in hands-on, experiential learning,” Rich says. “Combined with educational environmental activities such as taste tests and nature trivia contests, children who refused to eat carrots were transformed into gardeners excited about kale.”

As a Schweitzer Fellow, Rich is continuing her commitment to improving the health and well-being of the Waltham community.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

My experiences with Waltham Kid’s Club and Healthy Waltham inspired me to pursue a Master of Science at Harvard School of Public Health with an obesity, epidemiology, and prevention concentration. I was determined to return to Waltham with new tools to help address the structural factors perpetuating the obesity epidemic—and The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF) presented the ideal opportunity to apply my academic interests to my passion for community work.

As a Schweitzer Fellow, I partnered with Healthy Waltham to implement Let’s Move Cities and Towns and take action in four pillar areas:

  • Reducing the risk of obesity in early childhood
  • Making healthy food affordable and accessible
  • Providing healthy food in schools
  • Increasing physical activity

My specific projects have included expanding and starting new community gardens, providing healthy cooking workshops for children and families, and increasing physical activity opportunities with walking events.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Let’s Move is an extremely dynamic and multi-faceted project impacting specific population groups and the entire city. The combination of a high-risk approach and a population approach means the project can influence the Waltham community on multiple levels.

On the individual and family levels, the lasting impact will be education. Through cooking workshops and community gardens, the project provides the tools and information to help people make healthy decisions. For example, in collaboration with Jewish Children and Family Services, we are providing “Food Sense” workshops in the three Waltham public housing communities. There, we run workshops for families to learn to make easy, nutritious dinners that are affordable and accessible in Waltham. If families can remake the recipes, or incorporate new ingredients into their own recipes, the workshops will be a success.

Schools and after-school programs are also large target populations. Let’s Move activities are aimed at empowering programs and schools to work within their structures to make healthy and sustainable modifications. If healthy snacks or more physical activity is incorporated into the day, almost every child in Waltham will be affected.

On a community-wide level, the lasting impact will hopefully be in making environmental changes. Although these are big dreams, I would love to have it be a requirement that all restaurant menus in Waltham have a healthy option, and that all sugar-sweetened beverage vending machines be removed from schools and after school programs.

Healthy behaviors start in childhood. If Let’s Move is able to encourage even a few children and families to eat healthier or exercise more, the initiative will have a lasting impact.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Although I am biased, I really do believe that one of the most pressing health-related issues of our time is obesity. According to the World Health Organization, overweight and obesity are some of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. As of 2010, there were over one billion overweight individuals and 300 million obese individuals worldwide. Additionally, the obesity epidemic disproportionately impacts certain population groups—further perpetuating health disparities.

There is no easy solution for the obesity epidemic. On a population level, overweight and obesity must be addressed with primary prevention—meaning that people must be prevented from becoming overweight or obese, instead of attempting to reverse weight gain after it has occurred.

A combination of individual, familial, social, cultural, and environmental modifications is necessary to curb trends. Community-based interventions are a great place to start. However, they must be accompanied by top-down approaches and industry-wide (i.e. the food industry) changes.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

The most surprising element of my experience thus far is the enthusiasm of the Waltham community. Three examples—one from a community-wide event, one from a school-wide event, and one from a program-based workshop—illustrate the city’s support.

At the Let’s Move kick-off on Waltham Day, over 400 individuals participated in Let’s Move activities, ranging from learning about the initiative to engaging in a massive tug-of-war. The highlight of the event was a forty-five minute Zumba activity, in which almost 100 people, ranging from toddlers to adults, danced together. The willingness of residents from all backgrounds to come together for this activity is evidence that Let’s Move reflects the needs and the wants of the community at large.

The second example is International Walk to School Day, during which over 250 students at the Fitzgerald Elementary School walked to school. The excitement about the event was overwhelming, and I was asked all morning by parents and kids if the event was going to happen again. The Fitzgerald School PTO is now hoping to develop a weekly walking program for the spring.

The final example is from a cooking workshop at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club. After working together to make a pasta primavera with whole-wheat pasta, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli, the kids licked the entire bowl clean. At the end of the meal, one of the boys said to me, “I didn’t know brown pasta could taste good!”

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

I have always highly valued community. Wherever I am, I try to build relationships and find a supportive group of people with similar interests. I have definitely found a community in the 2011-2012 Boston Schweitzer Fellows. We are all committed to service and to impacting the social determinants of health.

For me, the opportunity to continue to work in a community to which I was already committed resonates with Schweitzer’s unwavering commitment to Lambaréné. Albert Schweitzer has inspired us all. As Fellows we are dedicated to carrying on his legacy and building strong communities wherever we go.

Mariah Rich is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF)’s Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Rich it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that improve the health and well-being of vulnerable people and communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program—which is supported entirely by charitable grants and contributions— click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.