Thank you, Pittsburgh, for giving residents and visitors safer streets for walking, biking, and increased physical activity!
This week we sat down with Alexandra Ashbrook, the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, an anti-hunger, antipoverty nonprofit group that is an initiative of the Food Research and Action Center. Read on to get a peek at the grassroots to policy level inner workings of how food access can be used as a strategy to combat hunger and nutrition among the children who need it the most. If you’re interested in connecting with Alexandra, message her through her PreventObesity Leader profile here.
Name: Alexandra Ashbrook
Organization: D.C. Hunger Solutions
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
As a long-time anti-hunger advocate, I’ve heard one too many off-base comments like, “How can you tell me there is hunger in the Washington, D.C. when so many people are overweight?,” or “Kids wouldn’t struggle with health and weight issue if parents knew how to cook healthy foods.” I was motivated to work on childhood obesity in large part to address the reality that hunger and obesity can co-exist in the same person and family. I want people to know how addressing obesity is much more complex than teaching people how to cook, and I want to find real solutions for low-income families. Low-income people who are struggling with obesity face many of the same challenges that impact all of us as we try to maintain a healthy weight – access to foods high in sugar and carbs, huge portion sizes, a more sedentary lifestyle – but they also face multiple additional challenges fueled by poverty. Imagine trying to eat a healthy diet throughout out the month when the average SNAP/food stamp benefit is $1.40 cents per meal. Imagine trying to go out for a run if you don’t feel safe walking in your neighborhood. Imagine your kids are in a school where the food isn’t healthy enough or they feel stigmatized for participating in school breakfast.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
My anti-obesity work is made easier because of federal nutrition programs like SNAP/food stamps, the School Breakfast and School Lunch programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (which pays for food in Head Start, child care centers, family child care, homeless and domestic violence shelters, and afterschool), the Summer Food Service Program, and WIC. These programs have all kinds of positive outcomes not in just reducing hunger and poverty but also when it comes to improving nutrition and boosting health. And because of their structure, our work can improve nutrition and meet increased need. The amazing part is that all of these programs (with the exception of WIC) are entitlement programs, so we can always help someone who needs food—nobody get turned away due to lack of funding. In other words, these programs are available when people need this help the most. I help both individuals and organizations access these federal dollars. For example, helping an afterschool program that serves low-income children to participate in the Afterschool Meal Program means they can get funding for good food for years to come. Access to federal dollars means organizations no longer have to dip into their already stretched budgets to find money for food. Instead, they can use federal dollars to offer healthier food and also use other funds on programming or staff.
When we promote the use of these programs by individuals, schools, faith-based groups, or community programs, D.C. children can get healthy meals that offer the nutrition they need, and organizations can get federal funding to serve meals. It’s a rare win-win.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
We all grow up hearing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that’s especially true for poor kids, so I would have to say connecting thousands of additional students to free school breakfast definitely stands out. In D.C., more than 70 percent of all students qualify for free meals under federal rules—that means a family of three which receives less than $26,000 a year. In order to help children get a healthy start to the school day, my organization worked to pass the D.C. Healthy Schools Act. Now D.C. leads the nation in connecting children to school breakfast. Each school day, 34,000 children in the District start the day with school breakfast, and the District receives millions of dollars in federal funding to pay for nutritious meals and school food service jobs. Since the passage of the act, 12,800 more children now eat breakfast in the District each day—that’s an increase of over 2.3 million breakfasts each school year. So in D.C., a healthy school breakfast is served every day, not just on test days, as is the case in too many schools across the nation. It seems to me that just feeding kids on tests days is at-best short-sighted and at worst pretty cynical.
Who is your role model in your work?
I continue to be inspired by stories from people in the community, like the woman who was working full-time and still did not have enough money to buy food for her four boys. She was just over the income limit for SNAP/food stamp benefits, but through a policy change allowed by federal rules, D.C. Hunger Solutions was able to help her get partial SNAP benefits—about $250 a month. This extra money made a huge difference. She was able to buy more fruits and vegetables for her family and she lost 30 pounds.
What game or sport did you play growing up?
I grew up in D.C., and some of my best childhood memories featured playing with my neighborhood friends in the alley. That 12 foot wide alley could be transformed into a baseball diamond, a soccer field, or a jump rope stage. We even set up ramps for an Evel Knievel-like bicycle competition.
Each week, our own Prarthana Gurung speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Prarthana’s profile and contact her.