It started with a green smoothie. When Jiana Murdic’s on-the-go breakfast attracted the interest of her fifth grade students, she began bringing in unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, like kiwis and figs, to surprise and engage them. The plant-based meals she took for granted became a core tenant of her connection with students—it didn’t take her long to realize something else was at play.
“I started to recognize the connection between what my students were eating before they came to school and their ability to focus on the 90-minute reading block that we were required to start the day with,” Murdic says. Through conversations with parents, she realized that eating breakfast—no matter what it was—was key, but that the students were often affected by large doses of sugar in the processed foods available in nearby stores.
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The realization sparked a passion in Murdic that took her out of the classroom and drew her to The Food Trust where she led the creation, development and implementation of HYPE: Healthy You. Positive Energy, a marketing campaign for Get Healthy Philly that ran for ten years and brought in millions of dollars in grant funding for the organization. But her position there, school wellness coordinator and marketing strategist for the new initiative, was grant-funded and only lasted three years.
After struggling to find a long-term position that would allow her to pursue her passion while also paying her bills, Murdic worked as a school wellness consultant at the Global Leadership Academy (GLA) in West Philadelphia, managing small-scale wellness programs like staff wellness retreats, implementing healthier options in vending machines, and creating healthier lunch menus.
After the academy expanded to open a second location, Murdic used the opportunity to expand her work, as well. In December 2016, she launched a one-woman social enterprise: Get Fresh Daily. Her mission is to provide Philadelphia’s communities of color with nutrition and wellness knowledge through engaging events and education. In addition to the wellness programs she runs at GLA, she offers a summer camp (called Camp Excellence), cooking classes and community events.
Now, in part thanks to her win in the Economy League’s Well City Challenge, she’s poised to keep growing.
Health disparities are a form of violence
In the beginning, Murdic leaned into her background as an educator, building programming to provide students access to information about wellness. But it soon became clear that information wasn’t the issue.
“We’re saying all these things about wellness and healthy living, but you’re looking at your environment and saying, ‘OK, I hear what you’re saying, but what I have access to is this corner store that doesn’t have healthy food,’” Murdic explains. “And I say, ‘Yeah, you’re exactly right.’”
Murdic described an outing she chaperoned a few years ago, where she toured a group of GLA middle school students down Germantown Avenue, where they observed the different communities along the road.
“We wanted to show students how different communities looked, in terms of access to healthy food and green spaces,” Murdic says. “Germantown Avenue, you can see how marginalized Black communities are really saturated with liquor stores and fast food places, and then as you go up and through Germantown, it decreases. By the time you get to Chestnut Hill you don’t see any of that. And what was really startling to me is that the kids didn’t know that, because they’ve never been there.”
“With criminal justice reform, people respond to it really passionately because you can see it—you see this violence on the news and it’s shocking and it’s abhorrent, but the thing with food is that it’s not as shocking. It’s so much more subtle because these diseases build over time. But it’s equally as violent,” Murdic says.
They were essentially ground-truthing a well-documented structural issue; a study of Philadelphia neighborhood food retail in 2019 showed a clear correlation between low-income neighborhoods (in which Black Philadelphians are disproportionately represented) and reduced healthy food access. This research was an important element of the Get Healthy Philly Initiative, and a motivating factor behind Murdic’s perspective on food justice as a systemic issue. She says she’s seen the conversation change significantly over the last year.
“With criminal justice reform, people respond to it really passionately because you can see it—you see this violence on the news and it’s shocking and it’s abhorrent, but the thing with food is that it’s not as shocking. It’s so much more subtle because these diseases build over time. But it’s equally as violent,” she says. “As the conversation over the last year has come to include the idea of structural racism, people are more open to talking about how this is really ingrained in our system, and why is that that case? Why do our communities look like this? Particularly when people of color are suffering so much more from diseases like heart disease and diabetes, and even COVID.”
Over the past year, health disparities have worsened as Black Americans have seen some of the highest death rates of any racial group nationally. Even before Covid, Black Americans were more likely than any racial or ethnic group worldwide to die of heart disease, and were 60 percent more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with diabetes.
Making healthy food accessible
These issues have helped shape Murdic’s work, and encouraged her to expand Get Fresh Daily’s programs to include summer camps, and a weekly cooking class for families primarily living in West Philadelphia that uses 100% plant-based and culturally relevant recipes, like garlic al fredo pasta, veggie burgers with onions rings, and buffalo cauliflower tacos.
Murdic keeps the cooking classes approachable and teaches a wide range of recipes. “[Since the beginning of the cooking class], I always choose really simple, delicious recipes with ingredients you can find at ShopRite, plus maybe one vegan ingredient like almond milk or vegan mayonnaise,” Murdic said.
“She’s helped me learn that food prep isn’t as difficult as I thought, and she helped me make a gradual, attainable change. She’s not preaching or forcing, it’s all about welcoming, and you can tell it’s really ingrained in her.”
Those simple ingredients, she says, can be difficult to find. One mom told her she couldn’t source items like tahini, and sometimes had to drive to different towns to get what she needed for a recipe. When Murdic found out that so many of the cooking class participants were struggling to find ingredients that she could find easily at her co-op, Weavers Way, she realized there was another need she could fill.
The inaccessibility of these ingredients inspired the Get Fresh Food Box, one of the ideas that Murdic submitted to the recent Well City Challenge, a social impact competition calling for solutions to the millennial health crisis that offered $50,000 in support to Philadelphians with ideas focused on innovation in physical and mental health programs.
Her pitch was simple: a monthly food box aimed at millennial parents (especially mothers) that includes several vegan pantry staples like vegan mayonnaise, nutritional yeast, or almond milk, plus recipes and access to the weekly virtual cooking class. Philly Foodworks and Weavers Way will collaborate with Get Fresh Daily to provide the boxes, which will be affordably priced and SNAP approved.
The food box, when Murdic pitched to the competition in early March, not only won in its category, it also received the People’s Choice Award, bringing in a grand total of more than $17,000 that will allow Get Fresh Daily to launch the food boxes, and take steps toward their larger idea: The Freedom Greens and Gardens Project, which envisions transforming Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia into a destination for wellness.
As part of the Freedom Greens and Gardens Project, Get Fresh Daily will collaborate with Greener Partners, a Philadelphia nonprofit specializing in urban farming and increasing food access, to plant an herb and vegetable garden across the street from Malcolm X Park, but Murdic says she hopes the project will be more than just that.
“This isn’t really a community center,” Murdic said. “We’re imagining a destination where people can get some support for their healthier lifestyle. This space is for regular people – I love our urban farmers, but not everyone wants to grow their own food.” In addition to the community programming, the garden will serve as a pick-up location for the food boxes.
And later this summer, she and the other two Well City Challenge winners will present more detailed pitches to another round of judges, with the potential to win $50,000.
“We’re saying all these things about wellness and healthy living, but you’re looking at your environment and saying, ‘OK, I hear what you’re saying, but what I have access to is this corner store that doesn’t have healthy food,’” Murdic explains.
“That money would allow me to hire another employee,” Murdic explained. “It would give me the leverage that I need to be able to use this momentum to build and be able to grow even more.” So far, the summer camps have been funded by a combination of parents’ payments, support from the Global Leadership Academy, and small grants that have allowed Murdic to hire contract employees. She’s still the only full-time employee at Get Fresh Daily.
LaTonia Bassett, a mother of three who began sending her oldest daughters to Get Fresh Daily’s camp several years ago, has appreciated Murdic’s tailored advice. “We have some food allergies and I have a difficult family to please, but I reach out to [Murdic] often just for suggestions,” Bassett says. “Where we started was ‘what do you eat?’ and then I’ll help you figure out a healthier version.”
The tips and tools Murdic has offered have helped both Bassett and her kids, she says. “This idea is really intergenerational, and I think that’s why it resonates so much. She’s helped me learn that food prep isn’t as difficult as I thought, and she helped me make a gradual, attainable change. She’s not preaching or forcing, it’s all about welcoming, and you can tell it’s really ingrained in her.”
Fundamentally, Murdic says, she is hoping to support other Black moms. Murdic is a single parent, and she says she’s seen an incredible amount of resilience among mothers over the last year.
“This is for us,” she said. “This is about celebrating women who have been keeping it together, and affirming that we’re heard and seen. I’m excited to be a part of giving folks a voice.”
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.Header photo courtesy of Get Fresh Daily