School cafeterias have never been known as a culinary bright spots. Most school lunches are frozen blobs laden with sodium, fat, and preservatives, with taupe being the dominant hue in the chicken fingers, fish sticks, burgers, and gravy slathered atop meats of questionable provenance. But times are changing. Walk into most any Greenville County school cafeteria these days, and you will see colorful meals that are healthy and appetizing. There are fruits and produce on salad bars and daily scratch-made soups full of fresh ingredients. You’ll see vegetarian options that contain actual vegetables like black bean burgers and veggie frittatas (the previous vegetarian meal was a PB&J or yogurt served with a cheese stick and graham crackers). It’s a massive culinary shift that’s empowering cafeteria workers and providing kids with healthy, wholesome lunches.
These are the kind of healthy “win-wins” that Sally Wills is passionate about. As the executive director of LiveWell Greenville, Wills spends her days connecting dots: identifying health challenges and linking people and organizations together to bring about positive change. LiveWell Greenville works with different sectors of the community including healthcare, schools, employers, churches, and towns, which involves transportation agencies and park and recreation departments. “We have workgroups in each of these areas,” Wills says. “And about three years ago the schools workgroup said, ‘What if we could change the way that the lunches are made in Greenville County Schools?’” Plans were made, partners were connected, and a pilot program was started at AJ Whittenberg, which has now expanded to 70 other schools.
Launched in early 2011, LiveWell Greenville is a coalition of more than 150 representatives working together to create and maintain a healthy community in an age dominated by processed food and sedentary entertainment. “It’s much easier to slip through a drive-though after work than go home and prepare a meal from scratch,” says Wills. “And it’s easier to drive than to walk or bike. LiveWell Greenville is trying to turn that tide.” From providing At Work Toolkits and Healthy Catering Guides for employers to hosting quarterly At Worship Workshops promoting healthy eating and active living, LiveWell Greenville’s ultimate goal is to make “the healthy choice the easy choice.”
The organization is now working with several partners, including the City of Greenville, the County of Greenville, Gardening for Good, and Good to Go to assess local areas with limited access to physical activity opportunities and healthy foods. These “play deserts” and “food deserts” are mainly in the northern, southern, and western parts of Greenville County. “We’re going into those communities and assessing what it is they really want,” Wills says. “The data shows us what they need, but that doesn’t mean they want it. So the question is, how can we help increase access to physical activity and healthy foods with what it is these communities are interested in.” For Wills, this cooperation is the most rewarding part of her work. “I love it when the pieces of the puzzle come together,” she says. “Especially when it helps people start to build this culture of health that makes it easier to live healthy.”