By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Dr. Robin Williams raised her two sons to be healthy eaters in a household where the daily mantra was “no fast food,” “no soda,” and “not too much sugar, salt or fat.”
So when her eldest son Austin turned 16, learned to drive, and came home with fast food packaging strewn about the car, Williams was aghast.
“My eyes were huge,” she said. “I was totally floored, like I discovered he was on drugs or something.”
Four year later, she laughs about her over-reaction – but only a little. An outspoken advocate for healthy eating, Williams is using her passion for proper nutrition to help educate the African-American community in Dover, Delaware, including students at Delaware State University.
As the wife of the school’s president, Dr. Harry Williams, she’s the “first lady” of DSU, a historically black public university with nearly 4,000 students. She’s also a volunteer for Go Red For Women, an American Heart Association initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health.
Raised in a farming family in North Carolina, the 48-year-old Williams grew up eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day. But her family also had a long history of heart disease. After her father died of a heart attack, she was inspired by Michelle Obama to encourage healthy eating among children.
Williams pushed Delaware State to offer healthier menu options and even set up her own section in a cafeteria where she served everything from grilled pesto chicken to sushi.
“At first, people looked at me like I was crazy when I was serving sushi, but then they tasted it and now they love it,” Williams said. “I really want to see more baked food and alternative choices to the generic, not-very-healthy options you see in a lot of cafeterias. I don’t want to see just a bunch of fried brown food.”
She’s sometimes joined in campus cafeteria by her husband, who has learned a lot about nutrition from his wife.
“Robin is tough when it comes to her family’s health and a proper diet. We don’t eat at fast food places and we think about what we are putting into our bodies and the consequences of poor decisions,” he said. “Robin loves to take care of people … she is a nurturer.”
The only first lady in the 125-year history of Delaware State to earn a doctorate, Williams wrote a dissertation about effective leadership as part of her doctorate in education from North Carolina State University. But she admits that leading people toward a good diet is an uphill battle – especially in the African American community.
“It’s not a secret that our diet isn’t always the healthiest of diets. We know we have to move toward fresh vegetables and preparing meals ourselves, but it’s hard,” she said.
“When you’re working and raising a family and you’re stressed and you need to eat fast, it’s easier not to change. It’s easier to go back to your old habits.”
It’s also difficult to find healthy food when you’re traveling, she says, pointing out that her sons, who are both student athletes, first started eating fast food on their teams’ road trips.
“If the coach pulls up to a Taco Bell and you haven’t eaten in hours, what are you supposed to do?” she says. “If the coach pulled up to a Fresh Market, my kids would go get a salad and a baked potato and eat the stuff you’re supposed to eat.”
The key, Williams says, is to teach kids the concept of “preventative maintenance” early on, before they turn into junk-food junkies.
“Part of it is finding the right students to talk to other students, because kids listen to their peers,” she said.
“However we do it, we’ve got to start earlier to get kids to think before they put food in their mouths. If we put pressure on them at an early age, they’ll understand the choices they make now will have consequences later on when they’re adults.”