This is the second in our series of blogs highlighting the work of the four people recognized by the Center’s 2019 “Speak Up for Better Health Award” contest.

For Elizabeth Wills-O’Gilvie, a knock on the front door of her Springfield, Massachusetts, home on a bitter cold and snowy February morning in 2010 heralded “a life-changing moment.”

A group of young students from an organization she had never heard of called Gardening The Community were on her doorstep, conducting a survey about the lack of healthy fresh food options in the local community. “They were asking where I bought my food, and what did I think about the fact that we didn’t have a grocery store in the neighborhood, and did I like produce, and would I buy produce?”

Having recently moved back to her hometown from Chicago with her husband and newly adopted son, Wills-O’Gilvie had already given a lot of thought to those questions and many more, to the point of wondering whether her family had made a mistake moving to Springfield.

“I was hooked, mostly because they were kids and they were asking pretty profound questions,” says Wills-O’Gilvie, who had been a community organizer in Chicago and had previously worked in affordable housing and economic development. “I wouldn’t say I was a strong advocate until I got back to Springfield this time. And it was the food that woke me up.”

“When we talk about the food system, we’re able to really illuminate systemic racism – not personally mediated bias, but the systems that keep poor kids and communities without having access to fresh food.”

The Wonder in a Kid’s Face

Wills-O’Gilvie is now chair of the Gardening the Community board and led efforts to purchase land in the community to build a greenhouse, so volunteers can grow fruits and vegetables year-round, and the beautiful new Walnut Street Community Farm Store where people in the neighborhood can buy locally grown, pesticide-free produce.

“The really interesting thing is the piece of land that we bought is literally across the street from the house I was living in nine years ago when those kids came and knocked on my door,” Wills-O’Gilvie says.

The organization has a year-round youth leadership and development program for middle and high school students that engages them in all of Gardening The Community’s programs. It also has a school garden program in 29 Springfield public schools, teaching children from pre-school through 8th grade how to grow their own nutritious food. “When I got involved with Gardening the Community, it emotionally broke me wide open,” she says. “Because there’s nothing like the wonder in a kid’s face when they’ve grown something, and then they eat it. I’ve been at this now for a while, and it still makes me cry. It’s a really powerful thing. And it just made me want everything to be better.”

Changing Health Outcomes

Wills-O’Gilvie is also on the steering committee of the Springfield Food Policy Council and helped lead the successful campaign to bring free breakfast into Springfield Public Schools as well as helping the district qualify for the federal free lunch program to address widespread student hunger. She also led advocacy efforts for the new $21 million Springfield Culinary and Nutrition Center, which opened in April, and prepares healthy meals featuring locally grown food from scratch each day for district schoolchildren.

“That’s how we get things changed. It’s helping people recognize that access to good food is a human right,” Wills-O’Gilvie says. “When you change what people have access to eat and how they eat, we can change their health outcomes.

“People really want to show up. I’m convinced of it. We just have got to learn how to talk to each other better. And we’ve got to call people in, instead of calling them out. And I think they’ll come. Don’t you?”

Center Communications Team