Avtar Nijjer-Sidhu

Health Educator, Kern County Public Health Services Department

Kern County

Kern County is known for its plentiful agricultural harvest. Avtar Nijjer-Sidhu is well aware of this legacy as the Senior Health Educator in the County’s Environmental Health Services Division. She has worked to promote healthy food access through both the Environmental Health Services Division and as a
participant in the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program for more than three years. “We first had to look at why this was happening in one of our most agriculture-rich communities—why we were struggling to get local, healthy produce to our people,” said Avtar. “We realized that if we’re telling
someone to eat healthy but they’re still living near corner stores with processed foods, then it won’t happen. It’s the same with physical activity: if you tell people to be more active but there aren’t parks and sidewalks nearby, it’s unlikely to be effective.”

In grappling with these complex issues, Avtar’s job responsibilities and expertise have grown. Her department spreads awareness about healthy food access challenges in Kern County. Her work also involves suggesting policy change and serving as a source of technical support. “For me, the agenda was always around pushing for access to healthy produce and community gardens, and zoning for farmers markets and walkable communities,” she said.

“Eight years ago, I started working around this idea that while nutritional
education is great, if your environment doesn’t support a healthy lifestyle, then it won’t happen.”

In the community of Arvin, Avtar and her colleagues lent a hand to assist local residents and leaders with incorporating food access concerns into the General Plan. Arvin leaders incorporated a policy into the Plan around access to healthy produce, and city leaders are now implementing the policy through store
“makeovers” to add healthy produce to local corner stores. As the stores accept WIC and EBT payment, low-income customers are encouraged to shop there.

Due to Avtar’s work, rates of obesity, heat disease, and chronic illness are dropping, and leaders from new communities are calling to ask for help. Community gardens are popping up, especially at schools, and more and more residents are taking an interest in bringing farmer’s markets to their communities. We never say we don’t have staff to help. Even when we don’t have funding, we figure out a way to roll up our sleeves and be there for the community,” Avtar said.