“Believe it or not, I’m an introvert,” says Lindy West, who, on this particular day, is dressed as a snap pea.
She also goes out — in public, mind you — dressed as an apple, a banana and a carrot. She may be an introvert, but West is also a wellness coordinator for University Health Services’ Health*Matters program, which aims to help UC Berkeley staff and faculty lead healthier lives. Over the course of six weeks this spring, she’s been visiting with dozens of Residential and Student Service Programs (RSSP) custodial and dining workers in a variety of produce-inspired costumes, the literal embodiment of the adage “You are what you eat.”
“A lot of the time, people don’t remember what you say or what you do, but they do remember how you made them feel,” West explains. “So if I can make somebody laugh or feel good about a healthy choice they’ve made, then I’ve done my job.”
The program West is promoting, “Colorful Choices in Spring,” emphasizes the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s a message many RSSP workers need to hear, she says. She notes that the rate of colon cancer is particularly high for Hispanic and African American men — a large part of RSSP’s staff — and a high-fiber, fruit- and veggie-rich diet can significantly decrease the odds of developing the disease.
Since English isn’t the primary language for many RSSP workers, West’s eye-catching costumes also make a powerful, easily understood visual statement. When a wellness coordinator drops in on a staff lunch break dressed as a vegetable, it’s bound to make an impression.
“Is it St. Paddy’s Day?” a passing RSSP worker calls to her.
“You gotta start shopping in another store,” jokes another.
“This is what I got that master’s degree for?” says West, a broad smile poking out from the top of her pea-green pod. But the mere fact that the RSSP workers are ribbing her is a sign of success, as she sees it.
“It’s all about relationships,” she says.
A registered nurse, West joined Health*Matters six years ago. She spent the previous 15 years in disability management in the corporate world, helping employees stay productive or, if injured, get back to work more quickly.
“I was flying around the country, making a lot of money, but then I realized I’d rather make a difference on this level,” she says.
Health*Matters usually does two major campaigns for staff each year — one in the fall focused on fitness, another in the spring focused on nutrition. In addition, through a Health*Matters program called “Know Your Numbers,” Berkeley employees can get annual cholesterol, blood-pressure and blood-sugar screenings.
A few years ago, West says, Health*Matters staffers sent an RSSP employee to the doctor after noting his high blood pressure. The doctor diagnosed the man with kidney cancer.
“He began treatment immediately, and because of that he’s alive three years later,” West says proudly. “If he hadn’t done the ‘Know Your Numbers’ screening, that wouldn’t be the case.”
West says she’s seen cholesterol and blood-pressure levels drop for other employees who get screened through Know Your Numbers – another indication that Health*Matters is having a positive impact. But keeping people engaged is a constant challenge, which explains why an introvert draws attention to herself, for six weeks a year, by parading as a fruit or vegetable.
After the costumes are put away, she adds, she’ll keep coming back to reinforce the importance of a healthy diet and exercise.
“I just want them to feel better,” she says. “It’s my call, my ministry, my service.”