School of Health Sciences and Public Health Dietetics

Veggie RX

The last grocery store in Maywood, an Aldi’s, shuttered on Christmas Eve of 2016. And with it disappeared the neighborhood’s easy access to fresh produce and its health-sustaining bounty of fiber, vitamins and nutrients that can help ward off chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and more.

But Mary (D’Anza) Mora, RDN, CDE ’02, is determined to change that. Mora works for the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing as a Community School and Wellness Coordinator with Proviso Partners for Health (PP4H), a community-based coalition made up of Loyola University Chicago, Loyola University Health System, and other partners who are collaborating to improve health equity and economic development in Chicago’s near west suburbs. Drawing on her background as a registered dietitian nutritionist, a professionally trained chef, and a master gardener volunteer, Mora is a woman on a mission: to increase access to healthy foods in the Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview, and Melrose Park.

“We know that a lot of health issues are within communities that don’t have fresh, affordable produce, and this is also a food equity issue,” Mora says. “I feel less like a registered dietitian and more like a social justice worker.”

An interest in social justice is what first attracted Mora to Loyola, where she completed her dietetic internship in 2002 and where she is now working on her master’s degree in dietetics. She spent six years as a clinical dietitian before transitioning into community health.

“I think that health is not just in the hospital or in the doctor’s office; it’s how you live and your environment and your school,” explains Mora. “Trying to reach people in their daily lives was more meaningful to me. I’m interested in making healthier choices easier for people.”

Along the way, Mora partnered with Joanne Kouba, PhD, RDN, LDN, an associate professor and director of dietetics education programs at the Niefhoff School of Nursing, whom she calls “a constant inspiration.” Before PP4H, Mora and Kouba worked together on I Can Grow, a healthy eating and nutrition program for kids, and the I-CARE PATH HRSA project, which focused on an alternative care model for patients with diabetes.

“Mary is so phenomenally good with community partnerships because she really listens to ideas and thoughts expressed by community members and respects their perspectives,” Kouba says.

Community partnerships are also at the heart of PP4H. On an average work day Mora might be choosing recipes for a cooking demonstration, leading a food justice discussion at a community member’s home, meeting with a small business owner about bringing a produce store to the neighborhood, helping tend a community garden, or working with a school to create healthier cafeteria options.

An estimated one in three adults have prediabetes, which means they are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes within five to 10 years. But a prediabetes diagnosis isn’t reason for despair—Xynos-Taylor said that it presents an opportunity to make lifestyle changes, like increasing your physical activity or altering your diet, that could prevent the onset of the condition.

According to the CDC, nine in 10 people with prediabetes aren’t aware they have it. Xynos-Taylor pointed out that the A1C glucose test used to diagnose diabetes is not typically included in standard wellness exams. “If your fasting glucose test is abnormal—measuring at levels of 100 or higher—and you have some of the risk factors for diabetes, don’t wait for your doctor to offer, ask for the A1C test,” she said.

“Everything that’s done with PP4H has the community members at the table. “Ultimately, it’s about partnering with schools, parents and kids, and meeting them where they’re at,” Mora says. “Our goal is to make these community transformations sustainable.”

She leverages other Loyola resources when she can: She recently partnered with the School of Public Health for a Food Summit and is working with the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise to explore how business students can help support worker-owned co-ops.

One of her most recent projects is Veggie RX, a partnership with Windy City Harvest Youth Farm. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project provides a free box of fresh produce to participants every week for 10 weeks. Participants attend that week’s cooking demonstration, which features easy, inexpensive and culturally appropriate meals, and then are encouraged to use double-value coupons to purchase additional produce at Veggie RX’s low-cost farm stand.

“Participants have loved it so far, and they keep coming back, which shows they’re interested,” Mora says.

Mora and the PP4H Food Justice Team recently started an urban garden connection group, which brings in speakers on topics ranging from how to prune tomatoes to the uses of medicinal herbs. “It’s like a support group for gardeners,” she says. “It’s this whole cycle of supporting local agriculture.”

“One night one of the girls called me from the garden, and she said, ‘I just had to call you because I just feel so good and so free.’ And I started crying,” Mora recalls. “This teenager thought of the garden as a safe place for her to go and work to better her community. And I’ll never forget that.”
—Mary (D’Anza) Mora, RDN (CDE ’02), community school and wellness coordinator

PP4H also runs several community gardens, including the Giving Garden at Proviso East High School, which has produced more than 2,100 pounds of produce in 2018. Neighborhood teens help tend the gardens as interns.

Mora will never forget one moment a couple of summers ago. “One night one of the girls called me from the garden, and she said, ‘I just had to call you because I just feel so good and so free.’ And I started crying,” Mora recalls. “This teenager thought of the garden as a safe place for her to go and work to better her community. And I’ll never forget that.”

Mora is not sure where her career will take her, but she hopes to continue her focus on the healing power of healthy food, and perhaps move into policy work.

“I think what I’m most proud of are the opportunities to keep learning and to be a registered dietitian in this public health role,” she says. “I’m really proud that I get to share my work and experiences with students, and show them that registered dietitians can affect policy and affect the community.”

Note: In 2019, the Niehoff Dietetics Program moved to Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health.

School of Health Sciences and Public Health

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