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Lan Nguyen

Catching up with our Health Expert, ST Mayer

It was a full house on Thursday morning, July 26 at the Mission Street Breakfast Forum in Daly City. From residents to local business owners, everyone had something to say about the future of the Mission Street corridor along El Camino Real.

After the event, our very own Lan Nguyen caught up with SaraT (ST) Mayer, the health expert from the forum panel, to chat for a bit. ST is the Director of Health Policy & Planning for the San Mateo County Health System—she oversees the county’s efforts toward improving children’s eating habits and increasing opportunity for physical activity through the Get Healthy San Mateo County initiative. Here’s what she had to say about food, exercise, and what she loves about the Bay Area:

Greenbelt Alliance:  Your work is centered on food and physical activity environments and their impact on health. Do you think that there are some specific messages that are essential to address when talking to residents?

ST Mayer:  Absolutely. There are a number of messages that we use when talking about the impact our physical environment has on health, and these messages change, depending on who we’re talking to and what new things we learn.  While it’s important for people to take personal responsibility for their health, it’s also important for us to recognize that there’s a lot we can do in our communities to make it easier for people to make healthy choices. Much of our health is determined by whether we make healthy choices, but the choices we make are limited by the choices we have available to us.  If we want people to be healthy, we must give them better choices.

In a place with as much natural beauty and resources as San Mateo County, it’s easy to believe that everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. As health professionals, we know that this is simply not true. Many people live in neighborhoods where it’s very hard to walk or bike, where parks don’t exist, or children hear gunshots all night long. In these neighborhoods, it’s not easy to make healthy choices, it’s difficult. We are constantly looking at local, statewide, and national research related to messaging to make sure we are communicating effectively with the people we want to engage. Most recently we partnered with Greenbelt Alliance and the Grand Boulevard Initiative to test messages related to revitalizing the El Camino Real corridor. I am so eager to see what this work reveals!

GA:  How important is where you live and where your business is to your health?

ST:  Place matters. Numerous studies have confirmed that where we live, work, play, and shop impact the longevity and quality of our lives. Our environments, and the choices they offer, condition us to make choices that either nurture or harm our health.

Get Healthy focuses on working with local communities and schools to support environments that make healthy food accessible and make it easy to choose a bike ride, a walk, or a bus ride over a car. It’s important to begin reintegrating physical activity and healthy eating back into our lives. If we do nothing, this generation of children will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents. I think this is something that no one finds acceptable, so we must take action to improve our environments as a means to improve our health. To see how much place matters here in San Mateo, check out gethealthysmc.org.

GA:  What do you hope participants took away from the Mission Street Breakfast Forum?

ST:  I hope that people were inspired, and will turn that inspiration into action. I am always inspired by the number of community members and residents who will give their personal time to an event like the Mission Street Breakfast Forum. The kinds of changes that the Grand Boulevard Initiative is facilitating can do great things for the health of our communities, but we need to turn plans and meetings into action, and this takes the support and engagement of residents across San Mateo County. If everyone who attended the Breakfast Forum does just one thing to move this vision forward, we will be one step closer to making this initiative a reality.

GA:  What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

ST:  Hands down: the people I work with. I work with a phenomenal team of smart and passionate people at the Health System. They make it a pleasure to come to work. Also, every day I have the fortune to meet people who are working to make their community a better place, and I am always inspired by how smart, caring and creative these people are.

GA:  What do you love about the Bay Area?

ST:  There are so many things I love about the Bay Area that the list could take up this entire page. As a new mom, I am recently appreciative for the wonderful parks. I live in San Francisco and the neighborhood parks are fantastic family gathering places. We also come to San Mateo County to enjoy the regional parks. San Bruno Mountain is really close to my house and offers many great hikes and beautiful views. Having wonderful parks really keeps us active and healthy as a family.

As a commuter, I appreciate Caltrain and our public transportation system, including our growing network of bike lanes. My commute on Caltrain lets me start my day even before I get into the office. This gives me more time with my family and means that I don’t arrive home stressed out from sitting in traffic. The increasing number of people biking on safe streets makes me feel comfortable biking with my son, and lately, we’ve made a family goal of leaving the car parked all weekend. I grew up on the snowy East Coast, so being able to bike and visit the parks year round still amazes me.

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