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As a food access advocate, Lisa Pino works on the closely linked issues of hunger and obesity. As the new President and CEO of the United Food Bank of Arizona, Lisa helps feed more than 800,000 Arizonans each year. Lisa is the former Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits program, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at USDA, where she served both roles upon her appointment to President Obama's Administration until 2013.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
Not until I began working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Deputy Administrator for the country’s SNAP program did I begin to understand the complex relationship between hunger and obesity in America. Both epidemics are paradoxically intertwined because they are symptoms of our underlying poverty crisis. As the wage gap and other wealth inequalities increase among low and middle income American households, stretching limited dollars at the grocery store for the kitchen table becomes a formidable task. As a result, the access, availability, and affordability of fresh, healthy food for low-income people, who often live in food deserts and are more likely to be food insecure, establishes a cycle of malnutrition. Malnutrition more aptly captures our American phenomenon of eating a high quantity of processed foods over high quality nutritious foods when only the latter satisfies the threshold of food security.
Unfortunately, our children have inherited this hunger and obesity paradox from us. Once I became responsible for the policy direction of SNAP, which feeds 16 million food insecure children, did I become inspired to also fight to end childhood obesity.
We now all have a responsibility to urgently solve this challenge for our nation’s children. Today 16 million children, or one of every five American youth, are living in food insecure households. We will not be able to succeed as a nation if our children are not well fed. Nutritional health is essential for their happiness, their academic success, and their ability to become vital, contributing members of our workforce for our nation’s future. Our children’s health is not only indicative of our nation’s collective health, but will ultimately determine our place in history.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
In my former work at USDA, it was an honor and privilege to serve the nation, the President, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on both the SNAP program and more recently as the USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. In both roles, I was able to contribute to a reversal of childhood obesity in various ways. For example, I supported the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity, including Let’s Move! in Indian Country. My experience in the Latino community also enabled me to play a key role in developing USDA’s bicultural nutrition education tools for the American public. As SNAP Deputy Administrator, I directed policy initiatives for the country’s largest anti-hunger program that dually provides a critical safety net and mitigates obesity by supplementing the diets of millions of food insecure children. And as Deputy Assistant secretary for civil rights, our work also reversed hunger and obesity trends by ensuring that American children have fair and equitable access to vital USDA nutrition programs.
Currently, as the President and CEO of the United Food Bank of Arizona, we are helping to end childhood hunger and obesity by feeding more than 800,000 Arizonans each year. Arizona is one of the worst states in the country for childhood hunger, and last year we were ranked No. 49 nationally for childhood food security. This means that the more Arizonan households we can nutritionally support, the more food secure the children living in those households can become. When 29 percent of children in Arizona are food insecure, the more that the food bank can do to end their experience with hunger, the more we can also end their vulnerability to childhood obesity.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
I am most proud of three accomplishments. The first is the privilege to have served… at USDA in a role where we worked to strengthen the nutrition of millions of American children from SNAP to National School Meals by virtue of the President’s 2010 signature of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This legislation boldly improves free and reduced priced school meals by the greatest strides seen in 30 years. Every moment spent in service will forever remain as one of my greatest accomplishments, to have had the opportunity to have been part of a greater collective effort to make our nation better within a finite amount of time.
Secondly, I am grateful that I have been able to serve as national advocate on behalf of communities of color within the context of improving health disparities among minorities. As the first Latina Deputy Administrator of USDA’s SNAP program, and currently as the only Latina President or CEO of a food bank in the nation, I continually integrate diversity and inclusion within our work of ending hunger and obesity for our children. This is a responsibility we must all embrace as our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, and childhood obesity rates disproportionally impact children of color, who experience obesity at significantly higher rates (10 percent and above) than the general population.
Last but not least, I view my ability to inspire people across the country as one of my greatest accomplishments. I was the first in my family to attend college, graduate, become a lawyer, and overcome numerous challenges thanks to the generosity of many good people, hard work, perseverance, and good fortune. I would have never believed that one day I would serve the President of the United States to help strengthen the health of millions of American children. Nevertheless numerous children, youth, students, parents, teachers, schools and community leaders have shared with me over the past few years how I have inspired them through my passion for ending hunger and obesity, restored their trust in public service and informed them of our health challenges in a manner that they have not yet heard. In particular, the children and youth that I meet tell me that they can relate to me, that I have inspired them to strive for their dream of becoming a nutritionist, policy maker, physician, or participating in the political process to strengthen health for others. That’s the kind of accomplishment that is the best kind because it’s not about me, it’s about providing that spark of hope and possibility for another person so that they in turn can serve the community. I am a fervent idealist. I hope to be 100 one day and even as a centurion will remain stubborn in my conviction that dreams do come true. Life is much too short to settle for anything less. Whenever I meet a young person who shares that I have inspired them, I ask them what their dream is, and tell them that they can absolutely realize their dreams, and that I believe in them.
Who is your role model in your work?
My role models are often a combination of people I have never met, and friends and current leaders who continually inspire me. Since becoming the new leader of the United Food Bank of Arizona, I have often thought about the challenges faced by Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. They were unapologetically firm in their commitment to community but all three enveloped a spirit of patience, grace, and humanity that seems to be rare in our modern world. As much as I hope to accomplish in the future, at a New York pace, they inspire and remind me to persevere slowly but surely, and to command my faith and conviction because ultimately leadership is defined by that curve.
I also feel blessed to have an incredible network of friends and colleagues who are there to guide, mentor, and counsel me along the way. They have become my surrogate family and I adore them. We are bound by our commitment to community, and they are brilliant, but they can also make me laugh at something silly to remind me that it’s alright to be myself, that mistakes are inevitable and that I am human just like everyone else.
What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up? Did you play any sports?
My favorite healthy snack as a child was an apple. I still remember my parents inviting my best friend in second grade and her family to go apple picking with us in upstate New York. I even remember the farm, Warwick Farms, and sitting on my first bale of hay to drink fresh apple cider. Ever since then, apples have been my favorite fruit. In fact, I just had one for lunch today paired with cottage cheese.
As a kid, I confess that I wasn’t into sports except for nerdy, Will Farrell-esque moments like dodgeball, softball, Irish folk dancing (this was St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic school in New York City after all), and our own school recess street games, which really were 101 variations of tag. Instead, I preferred long walks with my mom in the perennially beautiful Central Park, riding my bike with my dad along Riverside Drive so long as it wasn’t too cold outside, and walking my first dog after-school around the neighborhood between West End Avenue and Broadway. To this day, my favorite way to get some fresh air and rejuvenate is a long walk through New York if I had my way, or when possible, hiking the desert in Arizona when I want to get away from it all.
Each week, our own Zach Brooks 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 Zach’s profile and contact him.