A Conversation with The American Heart Association

On Thursday, March 16, 2017, I (Zach McElgunn) had the pleasure of sitting down with Allie Atkeson, a Campaign Manager with the American Heart Association. Allie’s work focuses on increasing community access to healthy food retail, especially in food deserts.

Sitting down for a cup of coffee, we had a chance to discuss what Allie’s work means to her and the community, what steps might be taken in the direction of creating a healthier, more actively engaged society, and how food might be seen as an “equal access” conduit to community improvement, social connection, and individual empowerment.

Could you just briefly tell me a bit about the work you do with the Heart Association, and what your personal goals and responsibilities are?

Sure. So, I am a campaign manager working on our healthy food access projects. And our goal is to help folks living in low income areas with limited supermarket access, gain access to fresh, affordable, quality food, which we know is super necessary to living a healthy life. And from the Heart Associations standpoint, this can also greatly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Awesome. So, you already answered my second questions, which was how food access and health are intertwined.

What do you understand to be the prerequisite steps to having a healthier society, on a large scale? I know that’s a broad question. But even beyond food access, what might be some steps for positively affecting, or inspiring good health on a larger scale.

I think when we think about overall health it’s really important to think about it in three different “buckets.” And I think those “buckets” are access, quality, and cost. We believe all three of those have to be addressed, whether it be healthcare, food access, access to spaces for physical activity — those types of opportunities.

So, 1) access — those opportunities need to be readily available where we live. 2) Cost – they need to be affordable for those that live in the area, and for those that have limited means. And 3) quality: You know, when we think about food we know that fresh produce can make a difference, as opposed to packaged food that’s high in caloric content and overall not very good for us.
Great. So do you have any easy tools that you think could be used to live a more food-conscious and healthier life? Maybe things that you do in your own life, or things that you would advise others to do.

That’s tricky since that’s not really my exact role with the Heart Association, but in my personal life I find that when I have the time to prepare my food ahead of time and think about what I’m going to eat in the week, I’m eating better food and I’m eating healthier. And I think that that time is also a privilege, so to be able to have that really helps me maintain a healthy lifestyle.

That’s great. So, can you talk with me about some of the long term benefits of equal food access, and how it changes and improves society in the long run, not just on the individual level of improved cholesterol and better heart health.

I think in some ways food is a great equalizer. It’s a constant across all cultures and ethnicities, and it’s related to the land and how we grow it. It’s related to our customs of sitting around a table and sharing with one another. And also our economy, and how we sell it as a product as well.

I think that it’s vastly important to our society and the more and more we see it, kind of dwindling and not playing that role, the harder it’s going to be for us to come together as a community.

Couldn’t agree more – it’s the original ritual, besides sleep you know. You break bread, you get around a fire, some warmth, you tell stories.

This is a personal question – what’s the single most memorable moment involving food, healthy or otherwise, that you have?

I was on this long five day trek and it was bitter cold, and when we stopped and made camp and made dinner that night, we made like a chicken broth soup and it had a soft boiled egg in it, and that egg was probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

There’s nothing like food when you’re hungry. (Laughter)

Yeah! It was so simple, it was just chicken broth with an egg broken in it.

Simple food is the best – when it’s simple it almost has more to do with the people you’re with in my opinion, an often underappreciate, but totally critical part of the “eating experience.”

 So, in your work, how does collaboration with other community non-profits play a part?

Collaboration is huge. Sometimes I feel like my role is really more as a “dot-connector” between other people and organizations, their goals and missions, and really just trying to find alignment and collaboration. I think that the issues of food access, of health outcomes are so large that no one organization, or one goal, or one best practice is really going to address them. So, collaboration is vitally important.

 I also think the idea of listening and learning from what other folks are doing is really important before each organization takes a huge step forward and tries to get themselves out there, that understanding the environment, and what’s out there, and how to work within the existing non-profit web and framework is really important.

Absolutely. That’s kind of a difficult balance to strike. Do you have any advice for striking that balance between being willing to do something new, getting into the community and addressing a problem in innovative ways, while still doing the appropriate research to see what is already out there and how other peoples’ work might factor in to what you are doing?

Definitely, listening. I love to see where folks are at and what they’re doing, and for example, you know, sitting down here with you and hearing what you’re doing. This starts turning my wheels towards understanding some of our opportunities for collaboration. And honestly, I’ll probably leave this meeting and come up with three other ideas and send you an email later.

This next one is kind of a two-part question.

Okay. Go ahead.

If you had a million dollars right now, or, the ears of a majority of policy makers, how would you use those funds and that platform?

I think I would encourage them to create a fund that could be leveraged with other types of philanthropic dollars, or foundation dollars to support community initiatives, whether that be opening up fresh food retail, like we’re doing with the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, or a building housing project, or a café like the one we’re sitting in.

 I think that being able to support ideas at the community level is really important, and often there’s a lack of financial support for that, particularly for groups that have historically been denied capital for a variety of reasons.

Yeah I agree. I think that the best solutions are always going to come from within the group being affected by the problem.

Definitely. It’s important to understand the differences in perspective between your personal background and the people you are seeking to serve. But those differences should never be a hindrance to your work. Instead, you should seek to understand the conditions and perspectives of the people you wish to serve, and collaborate directly with them.

Well, thank you, Allie, for taking the time to meet with me. I really appreciate your time, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we might work together going forward.

 Absolutely. Likewise, let’s continue this conversation!


For more information about the Heart Association’s work on food-access, check out the Heart Association website, and Healthy Food VA.

To see how you volunteer with E.A.T. Foundation and our Community Projects, contact Zach McElgunn at zachary@eatogether.org.

Together we can make a real difference in our lives and the lives of those around us! Let’s keep collaborating, learning, and growing as a community. Perpetual thoughtful dialogue will yield the best solutions, so join the conversation!