Food waste warrior: Recent Milwaukee grad aims to help underserved minority communities gain access to health care

Food waste warrior: Recent Milwaukee grad aims to help underserved minority communities gain access to health care

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- For many families, these past few weeks have been all about celebrating college graduations. One Milwaukee graduate hopes to change the world by teaching others-- in our own hometown--about nutrition and combatting food waste.

"I loved reading about nutrition as a kid; my mom had this Disney book and the food pyramid had broccoli, cheese, and eggs, which, like, those were things at my house but that wasn't what I ate for dinner," recalled Priya Ahuja.

The recent Marquette University graduate told CBS 58 Sunday Morning how she first learned about food and nutrition at a very young age.

"The food pyramid often preaches standards based on American nutrition education standards, and I think it's important to include different cultural examples of that," she said.

Ahuja was born in New Delhi, India, and moved to Brookfield, Wisconsin, with her parents as a baby in the early 2000s.

"I think my parents always set a really strong example about eating what we had and thinking about how fortunate we were," she said.

Wanting to spread those values instilled in her, Ahuja started her journey in high school when she worked to collaborate with local restaurants to combat food waste.

"My sophomore year of high school I proposed a program called 'Plate for a Scholarship,' to produce food waste from restaurants to help people who didn't have food get leftover food from restaurants," Ahuja said.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Though the idea stayed with her, it wasn't until she moved to Milwaukee for college, that certain stark lifestyle differences began to change her outlook on life.

"Milwaukee looked so much different than when I grew up," she said.

Ahuja began to learn how access to food can shape health outcomes.

"Looking at the replacement of grocery stores and access to healthy food, the price of food-- that definitely struck me as something that needed to be fixed in Milwaukee, especially when it came to communities of color who were disproportionately affected by that," she shared.

Learning about nutrition and food waste became a passion Ahuja had to share with others.

"We live in a community that, you're so separated by your socioeconomic status that you don't realize how limited of a resource food is until you don't have it," she explained.

As part of an honors project during her sophomore year in college, she proposed an education program where she'd spend hours teaching elementary kids about nutrition.

"Having those early relationships that are positive towards food and eating, shapes long-term habits," Ahuja added.

She said the program developed over the course of two years.

"Which was supposed to end when I graduated but I really wanted to do it again," Ahuja said.

It's now become an optional long-term program sophomores can take with Milwaukee Academy of the Sciences at Marquette University.

"Not thinking of it as a 'third world thing' but actually, as a very local pressing issue might help us rethink wasting food and how much we buy," she concluded.

Health experts say the world wastes about 2.5 billion tons of food every year. The U.S. discards more than any other country: more than 40 million tons.

Ahuja has been an advocacy volunteer with Sixteenth Street Clinic, and most recently, a Spanish translator and community health educator at City on a Hill -- a nonprofit that serves uninsured and medically underserved residents in Milwaukee.

"It takes just one more person to help set you up for a better future," she said.

There's a lot about health that goes beyond the context of a clinic or a hospital.

Ahuja recently graduated from Marquette University with a degree in biomedical sciences and a minor in Spanish for health professionals..

"It really means advocating for a patient population who may not have access, or they may not know the country as well as other people might," she said. "With patients in America, diet and exercise are just two words that get brushed over, but if a physician or provider can really connect with their patients background, understand their culture...that's exactly what I want to do as a doctor."

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