Women in Food: Columnist, Coroner and Community Organizer Ashley Ponschok
July 9, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
Ashley Ponschok grew up in Minneapolis-St. Paul and returned to her family’s home state of Wisconsin to attend college. After studying biology and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, she decided the lab life wasn’t for her.
Switching to the field of public health changed everything. Today, Ponschok is the Senior Community Development Specialist for Live54218.org, a Green Bay initiative to promote a healthier community.
Writing a sustainability column for the local paper and connecting farm-to school stakeholders would keep anyone busy. For Ponschok, it’s just the day job. At night, she acts as deputy coroner for Brown County.
“Our main goal is to bring community members together and lift them up to build a healthier community,” says Ponschok.
As Live54218 spokesperson for healthy choices, Ponschok educates people in the community on the interconnectedness of the food system.
“We can’t ask people to eat more fruits and vegetables or to be more active if they don’t have places to access those things. We work on increasing access to fruits and vegetables. We also work on increasing access to safe and beautiful places for people to be physically active,” she says.
Instrumental in the development of a Farm to School task force, Ponschok works to encourage better eating habits in local students by working to organize healthy eating promotions and events at locl schools
“They are excited to see us every month. They are like blank slates. People assume kids aren’t going to like certain things, that they are predisposed not to make good choices,” she says. “If you go in there and you are excited about something they are excited.”
The goal is to implement farm-to-school programs in all eight of the area’s school districts.
Ponschok likes to stay busy and active so working all day and being on-call for the county coroner works perfectly for her.
“I’m the only non medical professional on staff but it’s been a really good fit,” she says. “It allows me to have the best of both worlds; what I went to school for initially and then what I found my passion to be.”
Acting as a deputy coroner helps Ponschok find perspective in her life and sustainability work.
“I see the beginning of life and the end of life and you really come to understand that treating things rather than working on prevention is not the way to go,” she says.
The fight against childhood obesity in Brown County is a major focus. Childhood obesity rates for two and four-year-olds is just under 20 percent in the county. A community living under the weight of chronic disease is both challenge and reward for Ponschok.
“Treating chronic disease only goes so far, but if you can prevent it in the first place we would greatly reduce a number of expenses that our nation pays in healthcare costs. There’s a way to prevent all this from happening. If we can get at these kids at an early age we have our best shot at changing the way they live their life.”
Ponschok shares her sustainable knowledge with the larger community through her monthly column in the Green Bay Gazette. Despite professional experience and a formal education, Ponschok has sometimes struggled to convey her role as community organizer and educator.
“I think I have the double whammy here being young in the field I work in and also being a woman,” says Ponschok. “I think there’s a place for strong women in the work place and I don’t think we’re given enough credit sometimes.”
Ponschok’s message of preventative health and positive local food systems is gaining ground in Wisconsin. The aggregation of local food to local schools was an issue in Brown County. Ponschok reached out to local farmers and assisted in the organization of the a local farmers cooperative.
The co-op allows for local food aggregation and an expansion of the intermediate wholesale market. Today, Ponschok sits on the board, letting the local farmers lead and manage the organization.
“People together can do a lot more than you can do by yourself. Even if you want to remain involved in everything, maybe someone else is more capable than you are. Knowing where help is needed and where help is not, that’s been a big learning curve for me,” she says.
“It is possible to go to work every day and love what you do. I left here the other week after a 13.5-hour day and I had the best day of my life. Someone can become passionate and love what they do and find a role that fits them well.”