free-ranging conversation: lessons on how to respect and work with your audience from yael lehmann of the food trust

March 29, 2012

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators)

i’m a huge fan of the food trust. i’m a customer too, visiting their farmers markets and night market, which are celebrations of food and neighborhoods. i’m not their sole customer, as they also serve schools, underserved neighborhoods, agencies and states across the U.S. i was fortunate to speak with yael lehmann, the food trust’s executive director, about the work they do, the customers they serve and how employers can benefit and learn from both.

fm: what’s the food trust’s mission?
yl: the mission is to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food and the information to make healthy decisions.

fm: i know your work extends beyond philly, though we benefit greatly from it here.
yl. we’re based in philadelphia, with about 100 employees. we do a lot of work on the ground here and always will, but we do work in 26 states now. we have a grant to work in eight states from the robert wood johnson foundation (RWJF), and we work at the public policy level too—federal and state.

fm: love the robert wood johnson foundation! what’s their grant for?
yl: RWJF’s funding us to replicate the fresh food financing initiative, which was the first-of-its-kind grant and loan program to encourage supermarket development in underserved neighborhoods throughout pennsylvania. people got excited when they saw it worked, and it’s now being replicated in new york and new orleans. other states have announced similar programs but haven’t started funding development yet.

fm: as you know, i focus on employers and their priorities and challenges. and i know you focus on employers too. in terms of increasing food access, do you see a role here for employers that benefits them and their employees?
yl: as an employer, i know firsthand that there are things we can do to keep our employees happy and healthy. when employees are healthier, there’s less absenteeism and insurance rates stay lower. also, the food trust offers services to employers—we have registered dietitians on staff who can come to your office and teach about healthy eating, do interactive cooking classes, and talk about easy ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine.

fm: your group takes some tough, important stands, such as the work you’ve done to improve the types of food corner grocery stores offer. with this solution, you worked in partnership with the communities to get it done. what can employers learn from you about how to work with their communities—to do it well and with respect?
yl: we’ve had success offering healthier products. basically, if someone wants a chip, you help them get a healthier chip. to have this actually work, you need to take baby steps. the process of improving access to healthy foods can be challenging but it is possible. It takes a coordinated effort, working with lots of folks, and securing community support is key. our staff attends community meetings, goes door to door to talk to corner store operators, spends a lot of time listening. many of our staff are bilingual which also helps.

fm: can you share some ways you’re working with employers now?
yl: like with a lot of the work we do, it starts with people coming to us. employers were coming to us: we need to teach our employees to be healthier. their motivation is profit-driven and from the heart. we all want to lead healthy, productive lives. we’ve started working with exude benefits and consulting group. through exude and others, we’ll reach employers and help them offer information sessions and cooking sessions— sessions we can tailor to their population.

 

find out more about the food trust.

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