For almost seven years, Jeanell Smith has devoted her time to making a positive impact on her community. As an employee of Virginia Cooperative Extension, Jeanell provides nutrition education in Lynchburg. With alarming poverty rates, Lynchburg is a food desert. A food desert is an area where there is a lack of access to healthy and affordable nutritional options. Passionate, about not only her own health, but also the health of her clients, Jeanell works tirelessly to ensure Lynchburg will lose its food desert designation. With the proper education, it is possible to make healthy choices while saving money as well.
Q: What brought you to Lynchburg?
A: I moved here to Lynchburg 23 years ago. I grew up in Hunstville, Ala., where I met my husband. He transferred here for work, and I followed him.
Q: Was that move difficult to make?
A: Yes, incredibly so. Lynchburg was far less progressive then. I was used to bigger cities with more diversity. It’s been nice to observe the changes. There’s more diversity now. I also love the options for outside activities. The trail system here is wonderful.
Q: Tell me about your job.
A: So, it’s very complicated. I am a family nutrition program assistant. I primarily provide adult nutrition education. I work for Virginia Cooperative Extension, but I am a Virginia Tech employee. Normally my office would be at the Lynchburg Extension Office, but my situation is unique. I’m housed at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which is a great partnership. I offer the education and they provide food for some of my programs. My target client would be a SNAP (food stamp) recipient, but our programs are open and free to others in the community.
Q: Has your current career always been your goal?
A: No, not at all. Even a few years ago, I wouldn’t have pictured myself as a teacher. I graduated college with degrees in chemistry and biology. I was a microbiologist for the city of Huntsville, testing water quality. It was a fun job. I wore a lab coat and tennis shoes to work every day. Every day was different. I enjoyed it; however, I was the first woman to work at the water department. It took a little while, but soon I was accepted. The older man treated me like a daughter, and the younger ones treated me like a sister. I enjoyed it.
Q: What is your favorite part of your current job?
A: The people. I get to meet new people, and I learn from my clients as much as I teach them. I feel so happy seeing a client make a connection with what I am teaching and when they actually incorporate change I to their lives, the feelings are indescribable. Knowing that they might feel better & be healthier fills my heart. Never give up has always been my slogan for myself. I share that with my clients and I pay attention so they know I genuinely care. I always inquire about my client’s bowel habits as well. Such a great indicator or health. They freak at first, but I call it poo, and eventually everyone is OK with it.
Q: So much of your job focuses on healthy habits. Has that always been important to you?
A: My mom laid the foundation. Our meals were very healthy growing up. Then as I got older and started doing things on my own, I did what most teenagers do. I ate fast food and junk food. Over the years, I became more interested in cooking, which led me to my next career. I worked as a chef and started my own catering company – Greens and Grains Personal Chef Service. I think once my husband and I knew we wanted to start our family, that’s when I went back to that foundation my mother had laid.
Q: I’m sure you hear this over and over. “Eating healthy is too expensive.” How do you respond?
A: I understand. On the surface, it does appear that way. Fresh fruits and vegetables do cost more. But, there are ways to minimize that cost. That’s one of the core concepts in my program. You can buy your produce according to what’s in season, and buy frozen when it’s not. You can alternate your protein. You don’t have to have meat with every meal. Beans and eggs are great sources of protein and pretty affordable. Meal planning, shopping with a grocery list, utilizing your local farmers market… they are all ways to stretch your budget.
Q: What challenges do your low-income clients face that affect their shopping and eating habits?
A: Unfortunately, there are many challenges. Transportation and time are huge factors. If I need to go the store, I can get in my car and I’m done in an hour. But, for someone using the bus, that hour could take several hours. Cabs are an option, but they are expensive. I think if you’ve never lived without a car, you take that for granted.
Q: Why do you think some people are intimidated by the thought of cooking their meals at home?
A: It can seem overwhelming. But, anyone can cook. Having recipes, prepping things ahead of time will make it easier. Anything you can make at home is going to be better for you than something you take from the freezer and microwave. It’s a process, but that’s why I’m here. To help provide clients with the tools they need.
Q: Sometimes you encounter people who are in the midst of trauma. How do you calm yourself after absorbing that on a daily basis?
A: I work out. I run and enjoy yoga. It centers me. And, actually even in their struggles, my clients give me hope. I work in shelters and the stories I hear break my heart. But, to know the strength that it took for some of those women to leave their situations is inspiring. If they can survive their ideal, then anything is possible. I think that’s the message. It’s hope. Things can be bad, but they can also get better. It’s a community; we help each other.
Q: What’s it like to have a daughter headed off to college soon?
A: It’s different. It’s been the three of us for so long. I think my husband and I are both excited to see who she will be and where life will take her. On the one hand, it makes me analyze my parenting, but I’m looking forward to having a different relationship. I will no longer be the disciplinarian because she is an adult. So the relationship will evolve.
Q: You are a mother, a wife, full-time employee, yet you still find the time to volunteer. Why?
A: Because I am not happy with the way, things are. Lynchburg has the number one rate of poverty. So many people are struggling. So many people live paycheck to paycheck and just cannot get ahead. There’s this stereotype of what “low-income” looks like. The truth is it could be any of us. I cannot just sit on the sidelines and complain. I have to give credit to my parents. My mother and father have always been so accepting of everyone. This has always amazed me, since they were born in very rural Alabama in the ‘30s. They lived in Selma in the ‘60s and saw the deplorable treatment of African Americans. My Mother told me that she could not understand why one person would ever treat another that way. They were always completely intolerant of any form of racism, bigotry, or any ill treatment of anyone. My Mother also was the consummate volunteer. PTO president, Girl Scout troop leader and the list goes on. I was so lucky to have been raised by these phenomenal parents. Knowing how lucky I am, how can I not be there to help others? Isn’t that the point?
No arguments here…
For more information on Jeanell’s program, visit https://www.facebook.com/LynchburgVAFNP/