A Fellow for Life: Thomas Atwater ’06, Fellow at The Food Project

By Thomas Atwater ’06
2006 PIP Fellow
May 18, 2007

My fellowship at The Food Project began a few days after taking the MCAT.

In my new job, I foresaw that I would be learning about topics that were unfamiliar to me, such as food systems and agriculture.

What I failed to predict, however, was the collision of my career path with the principles of social justice that underpin The Food Project’s work.

The Food Project’s Niche

The Food Project occupies a unique niche of promoting sustainable food systems as a solution to social inequalities.

Many people would agree that the right to healthy food is a concept that is fundamental and to be taken for granted. But I have seen over and again the gratitude in the eyes of low-income men and women when they are able to use their food stamps to purchase fresh vegetables and fruits.

“I have to take three bus transfers to get food half this fresh,” one woman said.

“Now I don’t have to worry about my children having the same health problems I have.”

That first encounter resonated deeply within me. Since then I have begun to realize that residents of the inner-city need a model such as a community food system just as much as they need prescriptions for blood thinners.

Lessons Learned

I view my work with The Food Project as a stimulating and thought-provoking experience that is opening my eyes to innovative forms of social justice.

The particular niche of sustainable food systems in the inner city my not be my life passion, but such a model has made me think deeply about the causes of inequality instead of its conventional fixes.

More specifically, in the context of health disparities, I have had a first-hand opportunity to look at the social and economic causes of poor health instead of solely pharmaceutical or medical solutions.

I work intimately with communities of few resources, and I see that the only way to cause a systemic change is to address the root of the problem.

For the communities of Roxbury and Dorchester in inner-city Boston, the answer to healthy diets is not only fresh food.

Education to inform people of how diet affects health is paramount, as is policy that advocates for better food options in schools.

Similarly, I think that the answer to sickness and poor health is not just medicine.

Widespread improvement of health will also require education about preventative practices and creation of health policy councils to voice concerns to the local government.

Looking to the Future

This is not to say that I have found the answer to all health issues in the world—although that would be nice.

I have found, however, a focus for my passion for medicine through observing how a problem can be solved by community organizing and education.

Some in the medical field are more inclined to carve wide-sweeping policy or cure epidemics that affect millions.

I have realized that my place is on a smaller scale where I can reach out to communities and affect social change in a way that is inextricably linked to personal change.

If this has a grassroots-y feel to it, then it is warranted because I cannot begin to describe the gratification that I feel in serving individuals and singular communities.

The result is so tangible and the relationship becomes strong and sustainable.

This article is derived from Atwater’s remarks at the Princeton Project 55 Board of Directors meeting in Boston on April 21.

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