Health in the Family …From Farm to Table
|by Fran Joyce, March 2012|
Erin Hart is passionate about many issues… family, health, education, and local business. Hart has spent most of her adult life educating people about health, wellness, and preventative care. The knowledge she has attained proved invaluable when Hart was diagnosed with cervical cancer five years ago. “Here I was, recently married and looking forward to starting a family in the future, and doctors were advising me to get a hysterectomy as the final part of my treatment plan,” she said. “After weighing all the options, my husband and I decided to delay the procedure and try to have children. I had to be screened for cervical cancer every six months, but we now have two daughters, ages three and two, and an eight month old son.”
During her illness, Hart became even more committed to preventative care. Even though she works in the insurance industry, she had to fight for her right to have semi-annual cancer screenings. “It didn’t make sense to me,” says Hart. “The company I work for has been organizing health fairs for employers since 1999 explaining the benefits of promoting a healthier lifestyle to their workers. To me what we were doing was like missionary work. We were putting on health fairs before the rest of the industry. We were trying to educate about fitness, preventative care, and wellness programs, but no one else in the industry was listening. Workmen’s Comp. was providing information to employers and employees designed to promote safety in the workplace. We wanted to do the same thing, but we wanted to educate people about preventing diseases.”
Hart’s employer, American HealthCare Group, a medical management organization to provide health, wellness, and preventative services to businesses, government units, and individuals, is the creation of Hart’s father, Robert, who acts as CEO and President of the company. Her mother, Lynn, is in charge of Financial Operations and Human Resources. Hart also works with her sisters, Liz, who is the Wellness Program Manager, and Mary, the Marketing Coordinator.
Even before her diagnosis, Hart was convinced of the connection between healthy eating and illness prevention. Fats, sugars, and chemicals found in processed foods have long been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The success of the health fairs made her look for ways to reach bigger audiences. Hart felt they could expand their message to local schools helping children to build healthy eating habits that would last a lifetime. A quick look at school lunch programs told her there was much work to be done. Talking with teachers and students, Hart realized that many families were not eating fresh produce and meats. The majority of their diet was processed foods. Living in the Pittsburgh area there is no shortage of fresh farm products, so why weren’t people consuming fresh produce? After she started asking the right questions, she learned that most people weren’t aware of the advantages of buying from farmer’s markets. Many people weren’t even aware of the many fresh products available from over 2,500 farms in Allegheny and Washington counties.
One of the perks of working in the family business for Hart has been the ability to pitch new ideas to her bosses and coworkers. “When I approached my father with the idea for a conference to educate people about eating fresh locally grown farm products, he was very receptive. The only stipulations were that the program had to generate revenue, and it couldn’t take away from my other responsibilities. We are a business and we have to balance our community out-reach programs with the needs of our clients.”
In 2006, the first Farm to Table conference featuring nutritional tips and information about eating healthier by encouraging people to fill their tables with foods from local farms was held at the Bidwell Training Center in Manchester. By the third year, Farm to Table had to move downtown to a larger venue, The David Lawrence Convention Center.
After the first conference, Hart was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but the fate of Farm to Table was never in question during her treatments and her pregnancies. Hart continued to work. Working with family can be stressful at times, but according to Hart, “They definitely know my weaknesses, but I was fortunate to have the love and support of my family through my illness. Having that same support in the workplace was so comforting for me. It also allowed flexibility with my work schedule. After my children were born, that flexibility let me continue to work full time and still be there for them. I am so lucky to work with my family because we share the same values.”
“In 2010, my second daughter was born. I had to step back and let my sister Liz help organize the Farm to Table conference. Farm to Table had been all me, so sharing control was hard. Now I get to share my vision with my sister, and Liz brings a fresh perspective to the conference.”
Hart continues to try to develop more ways to educate people about health, exercise and diet, and she remains committed to keeping it in the family. Hart takes her own children to Farmer’s Markets and introduces them to a variety of fresh foods and spices. “I want to develop my kid’s palettes so they will try new foods, and I want to educate them about eating fresh foods from local vendors. We have this amazing resource around us. We all need to take advantage of it and buy local products which support local businesses or someday it could all be gone.”
Farm to Table, now in its sixth year, will be held at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh Friday and Saturday, March 23 and 24 from 10am to 5pm. Sixty-five vendors will participate in a Farmers Market and Expanded Health Expo. There will be live food demonstrations by chefs and dieticians and a local food tasting. Experts in the fields of Health, Wellness, and Nutrition will be on hand to educate the public about general health topics and local food resources.
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