Addressing Healthy Food Access through Partnerships in the Lehigh Valley

Written by: Em Thampoe (1), Samantha Shaak (2), Meagan Grega (3), Eric Ruth (3), and Carmen Guzman-McLaughlin (2)

(1) Lehigh University; (2) Lehigh Valley Health Network Department of Community Health; (3) Kelly Foundation

Food insecurity and access to food are a key social determinant of health, with a lack of access to healthy food leading to long-term negative physical and mental health outcomes for community members. In the Allentown area, data suggests about half of families are at-risk for food insecurity. The Allentown Promise Neighborhood 2019 survey identified that 53% of 1,000 respondents were at-risk for food insecurity (FI).  Similarly, a pilot social needs survey in the Children’s Clinic identified 58% of 400 families as at-risk for FI.

Numerous non-profit and social organizations aim to close the food access gaps in the Lehigh Valley for community members. One, the Kellyn Foundation, is partnering with healthcare systems, including Lehigh Valley Health Network, to address this issue of food insecurity and increase awareness and knowledge of the connection between food and health.

Dr. Meagan Grega, Chief Medical Officer (CMO), and Eric Ruth, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), founded the Kellyn Foundation in 2007. “We are basically helping people understand the components of a healthy lifestyle, supporting them and giving them programs and education to help them transition from their current lifestyle to a healthier lifestyle. Our goal is to reduce the local and national chronic disease burden to help people live longer and healthier lives,” Ruth said.

According to Ruth, the organization was started when Grega, a primary care doctor, was frustrated with her difficulty in having the time and resources to support her patients in transitioning towards healthier lifestyles.  She wanted to create something that would provide the ongoing education, support and accountability that are necessary for successful behavioral change.

The organization began with a program that is now called “Kellyn Lifestyle Medicine”, which involves instructing families on behavioral interventions, such as nutritional and exercise training, to engage them in the process of transitioning to an all-around healthy, sustainable lifestyle. In particular, the organization targets their work within low-income neighborhoods, aiming to provide culturally relevant, easily accessible services.

But Kellyn recognizes that they cannot address food insecurity and healthy food access alone. It is imperative to work in partnership with other key organizations and community anchors to increase their reach and impact. In 2010, they began working with local elementary schools, where they provide education to 3rd through 5th grade students on eating healthy foods like unprocessed fruits, vegetables and whole grains, interpreting nutrition labels and making healthy choices when eating out at restaurants or social events. They assess students’ knowledge of healthy lifestyles utilizing pre- and post-tests to evaluate the impact of the educational curriculum during each academic year. During the 2018-2019 school year, Kellyn reached over 9400 students in 39 elementary schools throughout nine school districts with their in-classroom education.  Students demonstrate significant increases in knowledge regarding the recommendation of eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, understanding that it is healthier to eat a piece of fruit rather than just drink the juice, and the importance of eating a rainbow of different colors of fruits and vegetables to obtain all the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health.  Students also demonstrate increased ability to understand nutrition labels, including the sugar and fat content, as well as being able to choose the healthiest snack among several options. 

Kellyn has also established community gardens with an educational component called the “Garden as a Classroom” at schools where they provide healthy lifestyle programming, teaching students how to grow their own vegetables and having students taste the produce that they grow. This approach connects the education to action so students can see the result of their work.

Kellyn also collaborates with healthcare systems, an important next step to changing the impact of food in the community. The Kellyn Foundation, Lehigh Valley Health Network, and ArtSpark have partnered on an initiative called Community Canvas for the last four years. This program helps highlight creativity and art in conjunction with Kellyn’s longstanding practice of healthy lifestyle education. At each school engaged in the Community Canvas program, there are in-classroom healthy lifestyle presentations, energetic group assemblies combining movement, games and art, along with an evening Public Art Event where students create artwork depicting what a healthy lifestyle means to them. The students go to a local location, such as the Lehigh Valley Mall or the Allentown Arts Walk, where they are provided with a blank canvas and a lunchbox full of art supplies for them to use in creating their masterpiece. The audience votes on which art piece they like the most and then two selected students from each school proceed on to the final competition. The finale features cooking, art, and dancing, but all activities come back to celebrating a healthy lifestyle.

Kellyn Foundation, LVHN and the ArtSpark team encourage students to explore the idea that in any culture, there is a profound connection between food and art. “Art is more than just what you think of. It involves everything related to cultural identity and life. Food is also woven throughout every aspect of life, on a daily basis and in times of celebration or sorrow,” Ruth said. The program is well regarded by students, parents and teachers alike as it combines fun, interactive activities with important educational concepts.

This year, in partnership with LVHN, Kellyn is expanding their Eat Real Food Mobile Market initiative into Allentown to round out their “Healthy Neighborhood Immersion Strategy” in Lehigh County and match the services they have been providing in Northampton County for the past four years.  The Mobile Market has weekly sites in neighborhoods that have decreased access to fresh, healthy produce and at Allentown elementary schools in which Kellyn provides education and manages school gardens. You can check out the full site schedule here:  LVHN patients at selected practices will be provided with a $20 weekly credit to use at the Eat Real Food Mobile Market throughout the summer. In addition, all individuals who purchase fruits and vegetables from the market are able to utilize their SNAP and WIC benefits as well as their Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program Senior vouchers, creating easy and affordable access for community members.  All customers using their SNAP EBT card are also eligible for up to a $10 match of free local produce as part of the Lehigh Valley Fresh Food Bucks program.

Ruth said that Kellyn hopes to continue their partnership with LVHN because there are so many intersections in the work that both organizations do. “Connecting the schools, the hospitals, the farmers and all the food related and health related nonprofits in the area, is a no brainer. We are facing a chronic disease epidemic in our community and in our nation.  We need to work together to Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice, and in doing so we can change the paradigm to increase health, longevity and vitality for all of us,” Ruth said.