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Laura Ford, a Schweitzer Fellow in Athens, Ohio, is working to make fresh, whole foods accessible to low-income residents of Athens County.

Laura Ford, a Schweitzer Fellow in Athens, Ohio, is working to make fresh, whole foods accessible to low-income residents of Athens County.

Last summer, WOUB interviewed recently-selected Schweitzer Fellow Laura Ford about her planned Schweitzer service project: a health and nutrition program for low-income people living in Athens County, Ohio.

Since then, this Schweitzer Fellow from Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has worked to increase access to healthy foods in the communities of Glouster and Nelsonville (where poverty levels are disproportionally high)—and has gone on a personal health journey of her own.

ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

LF: During medical school rotations, I worked with Allison Batchelor MD, CMD. She spoke with her patients about the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP)—a holistic, comprehensive, community-based healthy lifestyle program that helps participants adopt a more plant-based diet, lose weight, quit smoking, and reduce their overall disease risk factors. I sat with Dr. Batchelor as she reviewed each patient’s pre- and post-program blood pressure, weight, glucose, and lipid levels—all of which were significantly improved. Her patients testified that they were feeling better, losing weight, and had more energy.

But for Dr. Batchelor’s low-income and underserved patients, CHIP was not always an option. For some, the cost (then $320.00) was prohibitive; for others, attending the program was impossible due to a lack of transportation.

As a Schweitzer Fellow, I have partnered with Live Healthy Appalachia to bring a modified CHIP course directly to people who are underserved and low-income. The Athens County Health Department identified people who use food pantries as the population most in need—especially in Glouster and Nelsonville—”because of their limited access to prevention resources and lack of environmental structure/policy to promote health.”

With the support of the Schweitzer Fellowship, as well as a separate $7,500 grant to employ Farm-to-Table programs, I have worked with Live Healthy Appalachia to increase these communities’ access to fresh, whole foods.

I’ve also been on a personal journey, seeking the truth about food and how to keep our bodies healthy.  The media presents a lot of conflicting data, and I wanted to give my patients only accurate information.  As I learned more about the research of plant-based diet advocates, I saw that I was not eating and living as healthfully as I had thought. Some of the resulting changes weren’t easy—especially for my family—but how could I tell participants to do something that I was not?

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

LF: I would like to see more refrigerators and pantries filled with healthy foods; more personal and community gardens; more people walking and children playing outside; less (if not no) consumption of harmful substances; more local grocery stores and restaurants with plant-strong options; and ultimately, people feeling and moving better—not stunted by sickness or disease, and able to go on and fulfill the promise of their lives.

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

LF: The alarming rise of obesity and lifestyle-related disease. Currently, one-third of American adults are obese and one-third of children are overweight. Consequences of obesity include type 2 diabetes, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, cancer, and so many other diseases. Collectively and individually, we can take action to prevent or reverse this trend.

We need to educate ourselves on what a healthy diet is (whole-food, plant strong), and ensure access for everyone to these foods. We need to encourage personal and community gardens; share resources, skills, and creative ideas; promote breastfeeding (so many benefits!); and discourage smoking and the ingestion of harmful and illicit substances. We also need to prevent violence, and design and restructure communities to promote safe walking, biking, and other outdoor activities and exercise for adults and children alike. All of this will foster improved physical and mental well-being.

I know this topic has many more complexities, and my recommendations won’t solve all of our health issues—but they would be a step in the right direction.

ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

LF: The leadership development. I knew, of course, that leadership development was part of the Schweitzer Fellows program, but my primary focus had been on helping the people I’m serving get healthy.

Then, last week, it hit me: The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is addressing health disparities by developing leaders in service. Not by us developing our projects, but by “them” developing us. I see now that all of the support that our financial sponsors, our Schweitzer program director and associate, our guest speakers, and my mentors have given us—along with the monthly reports, reflections, media interviews, opportunities for panel discussions, and advocacy—have an even greater purpose: to groom, enable, and transform us, just as we are working to support the underserved people in our communities. Wow. I am humbled and amazed.

It has been very stimulating to meet with our mentors and with other Fellows, engage in the diversity of all of our Schweitzer projects together, and reach out to different people with their unique sets of needs. I’m grateful to my mentors (Louise, Ruth, Dr. Batchelor, and Dr. David Drozek) and affiliate organizations like Community Food Initiatives and Rural Action.

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

LF: Along with my current Fellows, and those who have gone before us and those who will come after us, I am a representative of Albert Schweitzer’s ideals, and we live for a greater purpose than just ourselves.  We are lifelong colleagues, a network of like-minded individuals who care about and are excited about each other. We help each other find solutions, and persevere under adversity. We look not at what we can’t do, but what we can do. We roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Click here to learn more about the Columbus-Athens Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants. Click here to make a donation.

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