The Accidental Activists

They started off by lifting weights. Now they aim to pump up the health of their communities.

Miriam Nelson leads a group in Pennsylvania

At 8:30 on a brisk November morning in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, 20 determined women march into the Kinsley’s ShopRite grocery store in Brodheadsville. Soon the women, most in their 50s and 60s, are pulling jars of peanut butter off the shelves and narrowing their eyes at the ingredients labels.

“Organic palm oil,” says Peggy Pugh, 63, pointing to the jar in her hand. She knows the only ingredient in peanut butter should be peanuts. Organic or not, added fat doesn’t need to be there.

The women try their best not to block the aisles, but they are hard to ignore as they move as a group around the store, scrutinizing the sugar content of energy bars, salad dressings and cereals. Other early morning shoppers cast curious looks their way.

“You look down every aisle, and it’s the same: sugar and refined grains,” says Friedman School Associate Professor Miriam Nelson, N85, N87, the proponent of community-driven health efforts who is leading this grocery audit. (See story on Miram Nelson’s new book, The Social Network Diet.)

She finds a bit of solace in the bread aisle, where she cradles two 100 percent whole-wheat loaves lovingly in her arms. “These are my babies,” she says, as a man, with a wary glance at the group, reaches past her to grab two packages of white bread.

Nelson has been on the road for two months, driving across the United States to meet with groups of women just like this one. In addition to inspecting grocery store shelves and walking through neighborhoods to get a feel for what might keep people from getting regular exercise, these Change Clubs, as Nelson has dubbed them, have been writing up detailed action plans for how to get their communities to be healthier.

In Kenai, Alaska, they talked about measures to make biking and walking through town safer and more appealing. They brainstormed about how to get the Pop-Tarts and other sugary snacks out of the after-school program in Pratt, Kan. The women in Clinton, Wisc., want to give teachers an alternative to handing out candy as rewards.

Back at the West Poconos Community Library, home base for Nelson’s three-day visit, the Pennsylvania women talk about organizing school fundraisers that don’t involve chocolate and getting local family restaurants to tweak their menus in favor of whole grains and fresh fruit. Watching them debate, one quickly gets the feeling they are a force to be reckoned with. A friendly and polite force, but a force nonetheless.

Nelson asks the women what other changes they think would make it easier for people in the community to eat right and be more active.

“Turning lanes on 209,” says Gale Kresge, 60, referring to the route that runs through the center of Brodheadsville, cutting the high school and middle school off from the library and one of the housing developments. “And sidewalks,” she adds. The fast-moving traffic and the lack of sidewalks make walking to school difficult.

Someone suggests helping parents figure out what foods count as healthy snacks for their kids. Perhaps putting stickers next to items on grocery store shelves?

“Give me a list, and I’ll go do it,” says a resolute Laura Kresge, 49, Gale’s sister-in-law.

Nelson, who admits to being impatient with the notion that change takes time, tells Kresge these things don’t always happen quickly. She hopes all the club members are in it for the long haul, even those who have never considered themselves change agents. After all, the thing that brought these women together in the first place wasn’t protesting in the streets, but lifting dumbbells in the gym.

Woman Power

It all began with a study Nelson completed in the early 1990s that found that women over age 50 can make great improvements to their health through strength training. It became the basis of Nelson’s bestselling book Strong Women Stay Young. Women across the country started following her exercises. Two Cooperative Extension agents asked Nelson to develop a strength-training regimen they could teach in their communities. Today more than 2,500 instructors around the country have been in trained in the community-based StrongWomen program, and tens of thousands of women have participated in classes.

Over the years, countless women have written and called Nelson to describe the transformations they’ve made in their health and their attitudes. They’ve bonded with their classmates. They’ve started travelling together. They’ve gotten more involved in their children’s schools. They’ve run for political office.

During that time, Nelson saw that while individual women were making great personal gains, the nation’s health was going downhill. The food landscape was getting progressively more treacherous, with refined grains and added sugars becoming the norm. Obesity rates were climbing, especially among children.

Something new needed to be done. So Nelson turned to her biggest resource: her StrongWomen army.

“The thought was that we could take them and harness this energy to create change,” Nelson says. She believes these groups of women, with a nudge in the right direction, can “really influence in a positive way the food and physical activity environment.”

In Pennsylvania, that led her to Carmela Heard, 59, a retired high school principal who teaches two StrongWomen classes, one of them in the basement of the library. Heard is incredibly proud of her students, some of whom came in using canes and are now walking easily. “My strongest is 83,” she says, pointing out tall, lean, white-haired Timmie Boroad.

Heard knew her students, who have become something of a family, would make a great Change Club. Some of the women had already gently pressured their favorite restaurant into serving them sides of salad instead of home fries, and fresh blueberries instead of syrup for their waffles. “We’re working on strawberries,” Heard says.

Most of the women say they joined the Change Club because they care about the next generation. “Actually, I’m a little worried,” says Bette Stout, 56.

At one point, Nelson and her colleagues, Rebecca Seguin, N04, N08, and Eleanor Heidkamp-Young, A08, lead the women on a walk near the library. As they stroll, the women say their community’s challenges are similar to those in many other American towns.

“This was all farmland,” says Judith Nansteel, 60, a retired elementary school teacher, as she looks at the cars zipping down 209. “And when it started building up, all they put in were strip malls. And then the strip malls had the pizza joints, and then the fast food came.”

The local population has grown steadily as families from New Jersey and New York, seeking lower taxes, have relocated to this corner of Pennsylvania. Many parents still work out of state. After the long commute home, “it’s a quick stop someplace and not thinking about the best things to eat,” Nansteel says. From where she is standing, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are the most obvious choices.

Back in the library, someone suggests selling healthy grab-and-go meals near the commuter bus stop. Several people embrace the idea of building a walkway bridge over treacherous 209, so kids can walk to school.

Chuck Gould, chairman of the board of Chestnuthill township and one of the “stakeholders” invited to sit in on the meeting, says that others in the community will inevitably complain that one walkway won’t make a difference, so why bother? But, he says, you have to start somewhere. “Give us one spot and let us know what you want to see.”

He warns them that they will have to fight for the changes they want, show up at community meetings and be willing to stick with it.

“It won’t be an overnight change,” he says. “It got this way over 100 years. You won’t change that in two.”

The women are enthusiastic, but making a plan for action is hard work. It has been two days of brainstorming. Carmela Heard jumps in with a hearty “Come on you guys!”—much as she would if she were encouraging just one more leg lift out of her class.

“The success of this group will be because of Carmela,” Nelson says later. “They really respect her. She is a force in her own right.” Having a strong leader is crucial to a project like the Change Clubs, she says.

Nelson asks what they thought of their tour of the grocery store.

“I’m sad about the peanut butter,” says Gale Kresge, disillusioned that the reduced-fat Jif she likes isn’t really the healthiest option. After a moment of catharsis, the women move on to the next task on the agenda.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at


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