Faces of Public Health: Michelle Kleinman
Faces of Public Health is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth featuring individuals working on the front lines of public health and helping keep people healthy and safe.
Michelle Kleinman, R.D., is a public health nutritionist for the Rockland County, New York health department, who brings an added skill to the job: she’s a trained chef.NewPublicHealth talked to Kleinman about working with restaurants, community innovations, her cook demonstrations, and more.
NewPublicHealth: What’s the wide range of your responsibilities at the health department?
Michelle Kleinman: Womb to the tomb. That’s what we work with. We don’t do one-on-one counseling, but we engage in policy development such as those related to child care and schools to improve nutrition and physical activity. And it’s not only public schools. We work with some private schools that need our assistance also.
We have a grant called Creating Healthy Places and through that we also work with restaurants, enhancing what they’re serving to their customers. That could be in the form of making a separate healthier menu, looking at portion control, plate size and even price. It could also include a nutritional calculation for them. We also work with the community at large. The libraries will ask me to come in. We do cooking demonstrations there and at other locations including farmers markets.
NPH: Describe a particular innovation.
Michelle Kleinman: We started the electronic banking transfer program to allow people on the supplemental nutrition program [formerly known as food stamps] to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. The EBT is very similar to a credit card. Years ago you’d take food stamp coupons to the store—I know because I was on food stamps—now consumers use an electronic card and a growing number of farmers markets have the machines needed to accept the card so that low-income consumers can shop there. Often there’s a far better produce choice there than at their local store.
We also educate people on how to use the produce. Recently we were at a farmers market which had a stall selling zapolito squash and no one knew what to do with it. We showed them how to cut it, we sautéed it. And actually, the price was great—six zapolito squashes for a dollar. Well, the vendor sold out of the zapolito squash that day! If you’re just looking at that squash and you don’t know what to do with it, you’re not going to buy it.
NPH: When did you start the cooking demonstrations in Rockland County?
Michelle Kleinman: When I was hired. I was a professional baker for the Marriott Corporation for ten years and then went back to school and got a degree in nutrition. I just wanted to go for one semester for food science and I didn’t even want the nutrition part, and then all of a sudden I loved it. We do food demonstrations at work site wellness programs, for example. And we run a weight loss program through a local hospital and there’s a segment in there about making changes when you cook, but often if you don’t show people how to do that, they don’t know. We recently made whole wheat apple cheese quesadillas at the library.
NPH: Some of your demonstrations are actually food makeovers. What’s a good example?
Michelle Kleinman: Lasagna. We can do a more vegetable base of it and not as much meat. We also can use part skim ricotta cheese and part skim mozzarella and egg whites, instead of whole eggs. I’m also famous for my cookies. I take cookies and make them healthy. I use pumpkin puree instead of butter and we also use beans in brownies instead of butter.
The most important thing is we don’t tell people this is healthier for you, we let them try it first. When we did milk taste tests, we said did you know you drank 1%? And they said, no, 1% is water. I said, no, you just drank it.
NPH: What feedback have you gotten that consumers have been trying to incorporate some of the things that you’ve taught them?
Michelle Kleinman: I think a great thing is when I’m in the supermarket and I see someone who’s been in my weight loss class, or who I don’t even recognize from a food demonstration, and they will come up to me and say, Michelle, I made that vegetarian chili that you made for us at the PTA meeting, it was excellent. I didn’t tell anybody it was healthy and everybody ate it up.
The Rockland County health department’s website includes some of the recipes Michelle Kleinman’s shares at demonstrations.