Alyson Abrami is the Director of Food and Nutrition Programs at The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) where she is responsible for overseeing all aspects of their Go!Healthy Programs. Prior to her work with CAS, she worked at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, first evaluating the Healthy Bodegas Initiatives, then as the Senior Manager of Farmers’ Market Programs. Before coming to work with the Health Department, Alyson worked on a variety of programs aimed at improving the quality of school meals and increasing healthy food consumption among school-aged children. She is a Registered Dietitian and received her Master’s degree in food policy and economics from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate?
I grew up as an athlete and a vegetarian, so I was naturally interested in how my diet affected my health. But it wasn’t until I studied dietetics and nutritional science in college that I began to make the connections of how policy and economics affects people’s food choices and their ability to live healthy, active lives. While my interest in food and nutrition has been a constant from early ages, a few experiences stick out that have helped shaped my career, and have fueled my passion for food policy and alleviating heath inequities. As an undergrad, I studied abroad in Belize. I volunteered at a health clinic in a small town named Punta Gorda, a fishing village in the southern part of the country. At a weekly workshop, locals diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure would come in to get their blood sugar levels and blood pressure monitored. First, I was shocked that the patients with diabetes were only testing their blood sugar weekly. I had been learning in college that those tests were needed several times a day. I also clearly remember a women telling how she thought she contracted high blood pressure was through the air. At that moment, while experiencing health inequities first-hand, I became impassioned to do something about it – and to focus my career on this massive problem of access to quality healthcare and education. Another of these moments occurred while completing my Dietetic Internship in Bolivia, working with a large international development organization. Some of their work included distributing USAID food aid. A nutritionist that I was working with brought me to a warehouse filled with sacks of US commodity corn/soy blend, hundreds of piles of these white sacks with the USAID logo. She looked at me and said “do you think this is the solution?” I realized that the US dumping its excess commodities was not the long-term answer to supporting the livelihoods of impoverished families and that many of the so-called solutions in place were ineffective and misguided. Those experiences in particular, among many others, helped me to dedicate my career to decreasing health inequities and to finding solutions that support the livelihoods of marginalized families.
CAS has been very effective in developing highly engaging, evidence-based nutrition programs in New York. Do you have any specific advice for community groups and researchers to increase media interest in their work?
When developing programming, it is key to incorporate evaluation from the beginning. As people working with communities, it often feels intuitive whether projects are working or not, but without the data, both quantitative and qualitative, it is difficult to communicate the impact in a meaningful, and persuasive way. Researchers can help community-based organizations develop evaluations that best fit their projects and that also can contribute to the body of literature in the field. With hard numbers as well as the stories to support work, the programs can be successfully pitched to the media. Another effective strategy is to get the attention of your local elected officials or celebrities. Urge people with high media profiles to visit your project and that can garner more media attention.
Can you tell us briefly about CAS’ nutrition-related programming?
Children’s Aid Society’s obesity prevention and health promotion initiative is called Go!Healthy. Through this initiative we have a portfolio of programs that follow children and their parents from birth through adolescence and beyond. The programs provide education on how to choose a healthful diet and teach the joys of cooking and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Our programming is grounded in hands-on, sensory-based education where we get children and parents involved with growing, harvesting, tasting and preparing delicious, affordable meals using food that grows in our region. Our work targets families that are enrolled at CAS’s Community Centers and Schools located in the South Bronx, Washington Heights, Harlem and the northern shore of Staten Island. For more information, please visit: http://www.childrensaidsociety.org/kids-health-nutrition.
You have several important initiatives, is there one particular program you are most excited about and which seems to be most effective? Also, can you provide one important case study of the impact of this particular program?
The Children’s Aid Society’s Go!Healthy program was recently awarded a $2.3 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Nutrition Education, and Obesity Prevention Program grant. I am really excited about this project because it is a 5-year grant that allows us to not only focus on behaviorally-focused nutrition education, but also the policy, systems and environmental changes necessary to make an impact on eating and physical activity.
Traditionally, much of our work at Children’s Aid Society has been focused exclusively on hands-on, sensory-based education, which is an essential component to behavior change. But now, for the first time, we are going beyond the classroom by aiming to transform our community centers and schools into an environment that supports the messages we provide children and their parents in the classroom. Through staff education and the development of wellness councils, our goal is to empower the sites to develop programs and policies that will help shift the culture to support healthier behaviors. We are also helping to address the issues of food access by bringing regionally grown, fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable cost directly to our families through Food Box programs onsite and near our community centers and schools.
While our new program, Go!Healthy Eat Smart, is just getting started, we are already hearing positive feedback. Here is an example:
“My name is Isabella. I’m in the 8th grade at City College Academy of the Arts. I participated in Go!Healthy class 2 times a week. Go!Healthy has changed the way I look at food. Not only did I learn how to cook, but I also learned about the type of food that is worth eating. I now know what is nutritious and good for my health. I also learned healthy, nutritious food can be delicious! Go!Healthy has helped me with my food choices and I believe can help others as well.”
What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City? And the greatest opportunities?
I think that poverty and the financial interest of corporations are our greatest challenges here in NYC and across the nation. The cost of living in NYC and the lack of a living minimum wage makes it hard for people to provide their families with a healthy meal. Many low-income communities and communities of color in NYC are preyed upon by food companies who spend billions of dollars designing and marketing unhealthy food. Fast food and bodegas are on every street corner and advertisements marketing cheap, calorically-dense food are everywhere.
Fortunately, NYC is filled with inspiring organizations and community leaders who are working on really creative and innovative projects and campaigns to take back the power of the food system. I am particularly excited about the role of youth in advocating for a more just food system. There are a number of groups across the city who are engaging youth, including the Children’s Aid Society, NYC Food Policy Center, Community Food Advocates and others — and these groups are beginning to coalesce to help elevate the voice of NYC youth.
What is your thinking about the connections between hunger, food insecurity and obesity? What strategies do you suggest for better integrating the efforts to reduce these two food-related problems?
Families that experience food insecurity and hunger face the challenge of having limited resources to purchase healthy foods while simultaneously living in communities that are inundated with relatively cheap, calorically dense food that is disproportionately marketed to them. At the Children’s Aid Society, we aim to tackle this challenges through a number of programs, including our Go!Healthy Meals program, where the children in our care receive healthy meals that are cooked from scratch and include only whole, unprocessed ingredients. We then provide education for children and parents that help them navigate the food environment in their communities and provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary to choose and prepare healthy low-cost meals. We are just beginning to address issue of healthy food access, but with our new ESNY grant, for the first time, we are bringing regionally grown, fresh produce directly to our families at an affordable cost through our food box program.
Last Food Policy Book or website read: I’m looking forward to reading Soda Politics by Marion Nestle
Current Location: Brooklyn, NY
Education: MS in Food Policy and Economics from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Registered Dietitian from the University of New Mexico and BS in Dietetics and Nutritional Sciences from the University of Vermont
Favorite Food: I am a veggie lover. Anything green from my garden or the farmers market is my favorite.