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Philly Nonprofit Lets the Kids Veg Out

July 24, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman
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As the home of steak sandwiches, the soft pretzel and Tastykakes, the City of Brotherly Love could almost never be mistaken for the City of Healthy Eating.

But Yael Lehman's working to change that, one person at a time.

The San Francisco native, who has a background in social work and social welfare, is executive director of the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit with a multifaceted focus, including nutritious eating, and increasing low-income families' access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Part of the organization's mission is nutrition education, but it's not all about food pyramids and recommended daily allowances -- it's an intense, hands-on, tasting extravaganza.

"In schools, when we bring in fresh fruit and vegetables, we distribute them immediately and say eat it now," said Lehman.

"You can talk about healthy food all day long, but if you're not actually eating it [with kids], it can be hard to be effective."

She emphasized that, as long as the fruits and veggies are fresh and clean, "kids actually love it."

Handing out healthy food to school kids is one thing, but getting those kids (and their parents) to make healthy choices on their own is an entirely different challenge. That's why the group uses what Lehman called "social marketing," mimicking eye-catching marketing tools and other techniques used by junk-food peddlers to attract kids to good food.

"Kids really do pay attention to marketing," she said. "We do focus groups with kids, and try to find out what they respond to and think is cool."

And that includes everything from nutrition-education comic books to product logos and slogans designed to make healthy options attractive to kids.

Much of that also plays into the Corner Store Campaign, in which the group works with local bodegas to promote healthier snacking choices for youngsters. Participating store owners receive a stand-alone refrigeration unit, along with a small stipend, to keep snack-size packages of items like bite-size pieces of pineapple, mangoes and strawberries.

That sort of snack, said intern Andrew Judd, who has worked on the campaign, can be bought by store owners for roughly 60 cents, and sold for around $1. That's a 40 cent profit margin, compared with approximately six cents that Judd said store owners make on a bag of chips.

"If we can change what the kids are buying, it can have a tremendous affect on what corner stores are buying, and on kids' health," said Lehman.

Feather in Her Cap 
Lehman, 40, has been with the nonprofit group since 2001, when she signed on as deputy director. She came to her current position as head of the company nearly three years ago.

Since much of its work is aimed at benefiting low-income families, the organization gets more than 70 percent of its funding from the USDA's Food Stamp Nutrition Education program, and also takes in individual donations and grants from groups like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust.

Among the group's achievements during Lehman's tenure as executive director is a study published in the April issue of Pediatrics, which credited the organization with helping reduce the onset of childhood obesity by 50 percent, thanks, in part, to nutrition education, and increased availability of fruits and vegetables.

The Pediatrics study was just mentioned -- lauded, actually -- in Time (June 23) and in more than 200 major papers across the world, said Lehman, calling it "truly a highlight of our organizational career."

While Lehman called access to healthy food a basic human right, it's also part of the Torah -- something not lost on this Jewish day-school veteran.

"Definitely the idea of reaping the land, and caring for and feeding others, that's a huge part of Judaism," she said.

Still, she's not without her own personal weaknesses. A balanced diet filled with fresh fruit and veggies is fine, but everyone has their victual vices, and Lehman is no exception.

Despite the silver bowl of fresh peaches on her desk, "I actually love junk food," she admitted, especially french fries and candy.


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