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‘Veducators’ bring wellness awareness to area schools and hospitals

As a kid, nutrition advice came from mom: “Eat your vegetables.”

Today, nutrition education is taking center stage at both the local and national level. School cafeterias across the country, including Georgia, are getting salad bars. Hospitals are putting local produce on the menu for patients. It’s all part of an exciting new wave of “veducation” that seeks to improve the wellbeing of our communities through innovative health initiatives.

Leading the way are some unlikely partnerships: chefs and schools, hospitals and farmers, local government and wellness experts. Institutions that typically conjure images of jello trays and sloppy joes are serving up new ways to engage kids and adults in positive health behaviors while connecting them to the broader food ecology. Even Cookie Monster is getting in on the act. In the family-friendly cookbook, “Let’s Cook” — the beloved Sesame Street character introduces nutritious foods to a new generation of children.

The movement reflects an over-burdened healthcare system that is hungry for change. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 40 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the U.S. are obese, and the numbers are rising. Research indicates a resulting cascade of health issues and preventable diseases, including heart attacks, diabetes and stroke — many of which can be prevented or reversed through dietary and lifestyle changes.

In Athens, a growing army of “veducators” are planting these seeds of change. St. Mary’s Health Care System and Athens Land Trust are partnering with local farmers to bring seasonal produce on-site to patients, visitors and staff. The new veggie stand — being piloted fromnow until October — is an inspired step toward transforming the notion that hospitals are only a place to go when sick.

“We like to say, we get you well here, and we keep you well,” said Lauren Johnson, community benefits manager, who is spearheading the project.

Organizers hope the stand will also serve as a model of health for employees. “Our staff work long shifts, so it can be hard to get to the grocery store, let alone a farmers market,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to increase accessibility.”

Local government is investing in employee wellness, too. Athens Clarke County’s enlightened “ACCess Wellness” program invites experts from the community — including UGA grad students, local businesses and wellness specialists within the ACC family — to share their knowledge with ACC staff and retirees.

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