For 2021 academic achievement honoree, food equals love, connections, healthy communities and more

May 12, 2021 • Uncategorized

By Sally Crocker

Sph Collage 5Food has been an inspiration to student Amber Deckard’s academic career path and community service endeavors for as long as she can remember.

Deckard – winner of this year’s University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) School of Public Health (SPH) Dean’s Commencement Award for Academic Achievement – grew up volunteering at food pantries with her family.

Her parents and siblings were very involved, and she became passionate about helping others in this way as well.

At the time, she hadn’t yet heard terms like “food insecurity” or studied the issues around challenges that people can face in their access to healthy, nutritious foods or finding resources to feed their families.

Her early volunteer experiences led to a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and then a move into public health. She graduated from HSC in May 2021 with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, Maternal and Child Health concentration.

“I have always wanted to make a difference and help others,” Deckard said. “It was during my senior year in undergraduate school that I took a step back to consider how food-related issues affect not just individuals but also communities and entire populations.”

“I began to see how I could make a bigger impact on health and nutrition by getting involved at the broader, public health level – this is what led me to HSC.”

Early into her graduate program, Deckard was matched to a research assistant position with FitWorth, the healthy city initiative championed by Mayor Betsy Price and the Fort Worth City Council and now supported by HSC.

Deckard has managed social media; worked on town halls, health fairs and community events; and engaged with citizens in conversations and action to build a healthier community.

When the pandemic hit, she helped FitWorth go virtual, with an online Tour de Fort Worth cycling event and a walking challenge where participants logged healthy steps and celebrated progress along the way.

She was also onboard when the program partnered with the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) to engage students of all ages, along with their families, in healthy lifestyle activities and goal setting.

For her SPH community internship experience, Deckard planned the FitWorth-FWISD Spring Wellness program that featured different health topics for each month from January through May 2021. The program has covered everything from nutrition to physical and mental health, staying active and more.

It’s estimated that the program has reached more than 85,000 students at every grade level, from elementary and middle school to high school. These students’ efforts have contributed to their own well-being and motivation, as well as cash prizes for their schools.

“The program is already seeing significant behavioral and activity changes among these students, who are learning that there’s more to being healthy than just working out … and that nutrition is also a big part of the picture,” Deckard said.

Deckard, who calls herself a “very driven person,” had a lot going in 2020, yet she was quick to step up and do more when Tarrant County Public Health sent a request for students to assist as COVID contact tracers during the spring and summer months of rising case counts and hospitalizations. Her job was to call local residents diagnosed with COVID-19, to gather information on their close contacts and recent activities and provide them with resources and support.

During 2020-21, she also worked with SPH faculty on research and advocacy projects specific to women’s and children’s health.

Rather than slowing her down, the pandemic showed Deckard just how much public health is needed and gave her critical avenues for helping people in new ways.

“Much of this past year has been about redirecting and moving face-to-face interactions virtually,” she said. “We’ve all had our challenges, but the support I received from my family and through HSC helped make it all possible. One of the best decisions I ever made was to come to the HSC School of Public Health.”

Deckard’s future career plans are in the areas of nutrition, women’s health, health policy, research and continued community involvement.

“Nutrition is what brought me here and connects across everything I do,” she said.

“Food represents love, health and so much more. It brings people together. It’s essential. It has the ability to strengthen and heal our bodies physically, emotionally and spiritually, and food is a cornerstone to keeping communities healthy.”