Packer 25 2020 — Shreela Sharma
Shreela Sharma wore a T-shirt that said “Eat. Sleep. Epidemiology. Repeat.” on her first day of the fall semester teaching Epidemiology 101 on live Webex at UTHealth School of Public Health.
Sharma is trying to change social norms on a macro level — to make fresh produce a fun, familiar, easy part of every family’s daily life.
Sharma is cofounder of Brighter Bites, a nonprofit organization focused on changing behavior in children and their families to improve long-term health by providing free fresh produce and fun nutrition education through school.
The program is an intense, full-immersion experience, operating in Houston; Dallas; Austin; New York City; Washington, D.C; and Southwest Florida so far.
“We’ve never left a city that we’ve been in. This is a long-term relationship, so we have to make sure we’re set up for that from the get-go,” Sharma said. “The produce industry and schools — those are the two pieces we are externally dependent on to make this happen. We have the expertise and education and ability to scale.”
Shreela is making headway with behavioral change, which is a step toward cultural change.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the organization served more than 25,000 families nationwide enrolled in the program across 100 schools, with each family receiving 25 pounds of fresh produce and nutrition education each week.
Emergency relief initiatives and partnerships have sharply increased those numbers after the pandemic began.
Since its inception in 2012, Brighter Bites has delivered more than 21 million pounds of fresh produce and hundreds of thousands of nutrition education materials to more than 265,000 individuals (including teachers) in multiple cities across the country.
In 2019, Business Insider ranked Sharma No. 61 of the 100 coolest people in food and drink.
The Partnership for a Healthier America named Brighter Bites winner of the 2018 PHA Impact Award.
“What amazes me about her is she gives the produce industry a boost, from the standpoint that she can use the science and her resources for proving our case, that if we can get parents to feed their children more fruits and vegetables, we can change health outcomes,” said Victor “Vic” Smith, CEO of grower-shipper JV Smith Cos., Yuma, Ariz., who is on Brighter Bites' board of directors.
It’s the behavior training that helps sustain the recipients’ demand for years after the program is over.
“They can actually prove this is an effective program,” Smith said, adding that the data enabled the group to win a grant from Walmart Foundation.
Sharma’s inspiration is her mother, a family physician who raised her in Mumbai, India, while she nurtured patients who sometimes couldn’t pay her.
“In my early years, we struggled, so I knew what it felt like. I’m pretty sure that’s what brought me full circle. I’m drawn to these kids and this work,” Sharma said.
“I know there were people in my life who helped me and us at that time and who didn’t need to, and that’s what helped us get to that next step. Can I be a little bit of a change agent to help them be more productive?”
When Sharma came to the U.S. at 21, she had never seen broccoli. She knew how to cook with cauliflower, but her American roommate explained how easy and delicious it is to roast almost any vegetable. Roasted vegetables are now a staple at Sharma’s house.
“That’s what happens over time when you have this continuous exposure and conversation. You’re not afraid to try,” she said.
“We’re trying to change the way communities think about food and how that effects their health and make that part of their norm.”