Vallejo medical student works to keep residents healthy

“I think that it is vital that those involved in healthcare acknowledge and address systemic inequalities that cause poor health in our communities … I chose the Global Center because they are very aware of needs that ought to be addressed in Vallejo and are well connected to community organizations here. I hope to help address food access and nutrition education deficits in the community and learn skills to continue being involved in this kind of work for the rest of my life.” - Melissa Belec

The many accomplishments of Dr. Albert Schweitzer are a tough act to imitate, but one Vallejo woman is trying to follow in his footsteps.

Through the San Francisco Bay Area Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, Melissa Belec, 25, is helping the Vallejo community she lives and studies in. A student at Touro University, Belec took her medical knowledge and created a program that keeps her involved with nutrition education in the community, and is also helping to organize a mobile garden for Vallejo.

Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, was an accomplished doctor who dedicated himself to the idea of “Reverence of Life” and working to help people and enhance life where he could. Schweitzer spent decades working at a hospital he helped set up in Gabon, a country in Central Africa.

“He founded this fellowship years ago, later in his life, and wanted it to be something where people who would be doing healthcare work and were also passionate about working with underserved communities,” Belec said.

Through the fellowship, students pitch healthcare-based projects that benefit the community. As part of her work, Belec chose to work with the Global Center for Success, creating a nutrition and healthy living program for those at the center.

“Twice a month, I go in and we cook a healthy meal,” Belec explained. After the meal, the group discusses a topic related to the meal, such as eating healthy on a budget.

“Unfortunately, it’s really expensive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and it’s really cheap to buy soda chips and pop, which are just exacerbating all of your health issues and don’t make you feel good in general,” Belec said. “So we do a lot of work around that.”

Belec also spends her time working with the People’s Garden of Vallejo and is helping to organize a “mobile garden.” The recent purchase of a shuttle bus is just the first part of a larger idea to get nutrition facts, vegetable seedlings and fresh produce into the hands of the public.

“Vallejo has tons of food deserts where there’s no access to anything but corner stores — and that makes it difficult to eat healthy,” Belec said. “I know that lettuce is better for me, but if I can’t get it, it makes no difference.

“There’s also studies that show the opposite,” Belec continues. “If you provide people with food, but they know nothing about it, they’re also not going to eat it.” Combining gardening lessons with nutrition lessons, Belec hopes that the mobile garden will help to improve the health situation for locals, from elementary students to those staying at shelters. 

Despite Belec being from another state, she displays an enthusiasm for the city and the people who live in it.

“She’s a wonderful addition to this program,” said Dale Ogar, Bay Area Albert Schweitzer program director. “She comes from Minnesota, she’s very far from home and she’s experienced some issues (with her project). She’s kept plugging away and I’m really proud of her.”

Belec is committed to her work in Vallejo and Ogar says that Belec’s dedication to improving the health of people in Vallejo shows.

“I think she’s really struck by (food issues in Vallejo),” Ogar said. “It’s admirable and she’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.”

Belec’s project at the Global Center for Success and work with the Vallejo People’s Garden helped to fulfill a part of her life that Belec said was missing in medical school: Working with people and doing meaningful things.

“There’s not an existing support system in Vallejo as in other places and I think that needs are more unmet here than they are in other places,” Belec said. “I wanted to keep (my project) here and address the needs that are here, rather than leaving.

“One of the things about Vallejo that I really appreciate is that everybody comes from a lot of different backgrounds, is able to set apart their differences and work toward a common goal,” Belec said. “We might disagree about this thing and we might slightly disagree on this other political thing, but at the end of the day, everybody who’s involved with the garden says, ‘There’s not enough access to healthy food. I wanna work on that together even if we disagree about these other things.’

“In a lot of other places I’ve been, people have not been able to do that. I think that that’s the coolest thing about Vallejo.”

Contact Dianne de Guzman at 707-553-6833.

Melissa Belec meditation garden
Melissa Belec helps other Bay Area Albert Schweitzer Fellows as they construct a meditation garden behind the Global Center for Success on Mare Island. CHRIS RILEY—VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD