Empowering Individuals to Make Healthy Choices and Changes

By Monica Bhagwan

While talking about and teaching others about good food is a passion for Leah’s Pantry staff, we also want to know that the knowledge we share improves the lives of those we serve. I am proud to be part of a team that takes our mission of empowering people to make healthy changes in their lives to heart. Rather than merely creating opportunities for learning about food and nutrition, our programs aim to create a setting that inspires participants to make their own decisions and devise their own strategies to live more healthfully. Successful personal change hinges on a person being able to feel a sense of self-determination, capability, and pride. This is the approach we use in order to truly empower our Food Smarts participants.

Monica prepping salad greens donated by FarmBox SF for the Feeding Portrero Healthy Catering Team.

Monica prepping salad greens donated by FarmBox SF for the Feeding Portrero Healthy Catering Team.

Many of us struggle with making healthy changes for ourselves, even when we have the knowledge and resources to make them. We often have to overcome emotional, psychological, or practical limitations.  For many of the participants in our programs, not only are the resources to successfully deal with challenges severely limited, but the traumas of living in poverty further sap their sense of autonomy, power, and confidence. When they hear messages about healthy eating, often delivered as a list of “shoulds” or “don’ts,” but are unable to overcome the barriers, they can easily feel blamed, ashamed or overwhelmed. These feelings can be very disempowering to an individual seeking to eat more healthfully.

To successfully empower our participants, it is essential that we first regard and respect their emotional, psychological, and practical barriers to personal behavior change. Then we can help them consider real ways to overcome their challenges and help plant the seeds of regaining control over their choices and their lives. Among the ways we do this are:

  • Cultivating a supportive environment where everyone’s knowledge and experiences are valued and shared. Some of our participants may come with a lot of fear about how to make healthy changes. Others are already practicing some healthy habits. We try to create an environment where one participant can feel safe to discuss their challenges, and others can share their successes.
  • Making sure that the information and tools we share are culturally and economically relevant to the community. For example, at a workshop in the Tenderloin, we might facilitate a discussion among SRO residents about the best strategies to shop for affordable fresh vegetables in that neighborhood where there is no major grocery store.
  • Helping participants break down broad dreams and desires into achievable, bite-sized goals. Nothing inspires people to continue down a road of healthy changes like having actual successes along the way. SMART goals are an important tool in our workshops. Goal setting with SMART goals can allow participants to translate their dreams and desires into concrete actions.
  • Promoting healthy swaps, instead of restrictions and “don’ts.” Participants are much more inspired when we help them find attractive alternatives to their current choices or behaviors, rather than telling them to stop or restrict themselves. One of our favorite “healthy swaps” is to add sliced fruit to sparkling water as a replacement for sweetened beverages. Many participants enjoy the different flavors and beautiful simplicity of this simple swap.
  • Recognizing positive internal motivations for personal change. Improved health and well-being, quality of life, enjoyment, pleasure, and personal achievement are the main motivators for participants we are able to successfully help make healthy choices. There are very few people who are motivated by fear or worry in order to do something new and stick with it.
  • Emphasizing that change is about improvement not perfection. We honor that it is not always possible for everyone to make all the changes they want to make and that not everything is within an individual’s control. We encourage participants to focus on one step at a time rather than trying to get it all “right.” We celebrate what we are able to successfully and differently, but not be disheartened by inability or setbacks.