I first heard about SEEDS through a community email listserv that my roommate sent me. SEEDS frequently has volunteer opportunities throughout the year and I signed up for their most recent annual fundraiser, Pie Social. It was such a fun event! People donated all kinds of pies that day from sweet to savory to pizza – they were all there for everyone to enjoy. One of the most inspiring aspects of that event was the community’s support. Well-renowned chefs and residents alike spent hours to create delicious expressions of edible art. And all the attendees were more than happy to splurge on various delicacies. Veterans of the event even brought Tupperware to share their pie-riches with family and friends.
After volunteering, I wanted to learn more about SEEDS and was connected with another volunteer Prathima Kannan. Here’s my interview with her…
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing?
Prathima Kannan: Right now, I work at Alamance County Health Department as a Registered Dietician for the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and also have a small nutrition private practice. How I got here was a combination of interest and personal experience. During college and in my 20s, I struggled with my weight and nutrition. I chose to eat unhealthy foods; ate to cope with difficult emotions; ate mindlessly; and decided not to exercise most of the time. I dealt with the consequences of these choices: abnormal lab values and weight gain. It was clear that these symptoms had a negative impact on my health, but less obvious were the negative impact on my self-esteem, social experiences and my work life. I needed to make changes quickly and I revamped my diet, increased my physical activity levels, and changed my attitude towards living a healthy lifestyle—it doesn’t have to be drudgery. I discovered that eating healthful foods can be delicious and that exercise can be enjoyable – all of which I had utterly dismissed in the past. Though it all seemed too simple and straight-forward, it worked: today my lab values normalized and I feel radically different. My own struggle with weight inspired me to help people change their lives through behavior modification, with particular focus on their diet. I found that health could be reversed through lifestyle changes, and since I wanted to help people on a community level, I chose to work at the Health Department. How did I find SEEDS? I went to graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill School of Public Health for Nutrition. I went into the program with an interest in growing food, gardening, nutrition and cooking and I wanted to find a place where I could combine these interests to help children or adults. In the break room some students were talking about SEEDS and I also remember my Professors mention the organization in the context of increasing access to healthy food and improving community health through community gardening. I made a mental note to follow up and started volunteering in 2014. At SEEDS, I work with kids and I really wanted to show them that healthy living and prevention can be fun.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
PK: What drives me is running into kind, friendly, helpful people anywhere in the word who work hard to realize their dreams or make a positive difference in the world. Sometimes, after meeting a terrible person, I get jaded. My spirits are immediately lifted after I run into someone great. Animals, especially wildlife, also inspire me. I admire their strength to keep going despite damage to their environment. They are truly resilient.
Me: What do you think it will take for our healthcare systems to improve?
PK: Our healthcare system can improve in many ways. One way that comes to mind is putting more holistic, preventive programs, individual care and initiatives in place, especially when dealing with diet-related chronic disease. Healthcare should be more coordinated as well. Physicians and other members of the healthcare team should really work more with registered dietitians, exercise physiologists, personal trainers, health psychologists and others to help a patient change behaviors/lifestyle instead of immediately writing a prescription. Our healthcare system is too dependent on medicine and physicians for every diet-related health issue, and it’s not effective. Despite the development of new medications, obesity and diabetes rates, for example, continue rise every year.
Me: Why do you think education is important? Specifically, tie in your work with SEEDS on teaching kids about nutrition.
PK: Health education and health communication are key. A quote I found from World Health Organization really resonates with me: “The focus of health education is on people and action. In general, its aims are to encourage people to adopt and sustain healthful life patterns, to use judiciously and wisely the health services available to them, and to make their own decisions, both individually and collectively, to improve their health status and environment.” Excellent and accessible health education combined with health communication plays a huge role in whether or not someone will adopt positive health behaviors. Children are faced with many choices that could affect their health on a daily basis. Without being informed, it’s hard for a child to make smart, healthful decisions. My goal at SEEDS is to encourage the kids I teach to take action and take control of their health after learning nutrition and healthful cooking skills. After each lesson, I want them to eat more fruits and vegetables and know why they are beneficial; I want them to know how to eat healthfully when there are financial constraints or transportation and access issues to the best of their ability; I want them to make excellent health promoting decisions when faced with temptation like exposure to unhealthy foods at the supermarket, disease promoting internet and TV advertisements that are actually geared towards them, or possibly exposure to unhealthy eating habits of their peers or adults.
Me: What are the current needs in Durham (or where you live), as they relate to social determinants of health (i.e SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)
PK: Reducing or eliminating health disparities is a current need. Health disparities definitely exist in Orange County, NC. I see it every day. Priority health issues in Orange County are access to health care, insurance and information; chronic disease/health promotion, exercise and nutrition; mental health and substance abuse; and injury. This is based on the most recent Healthy Carolinians of Orange County’s Community Health Assessment. The social determinants of these issues seem to be poverty, education level and whether or not someone lives in safe housing and in a health promoting environment (ie: Do they have access to a supermarket or farmers’ market? Do they live near a park or trail? Are there sidewalks?). It is certainly known that people with higher incomes and more years of education who live in a healthy and safe environment tend to have better health outcomes and generally live longer.