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Public health worker pushes nutrition in Lee County

Kalin Werner, a public health associate with the Lee County Health Department, rarely drinks soda. But she said that’s easy for her: She doesn’t like it, anyway.

“For me, one smaller soda is really filling,” she said.

That’s probably because her pediatrician mother kept her cupboards free of sweet drinks when Kalin was growing up.

Teaching people about nutrition when they’re young can have big payoffs, Werner said. If they start right, they’ll have fewer health problems later in life.

Two years ago, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigned Werner, now 23, to work in the Lee County department for 2 years. Her term will end in July.

Just out of college, she was one of 100 young professionals sent to public health agencies around the country, with only a handful in Illinois.

Werner has visited local classrooms, speaking mainly to third- and fourth-graders about the importance of wellness. Each day, she said, you should:

• Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables.

• Have no more than 2 hours of screen time.

• Exercise for at least 1 hour.

• Have almost no sugary beverages.

An Oakland, California, native, Werner was new to the Midwest. Her first winter was an experience. And then there was the second, the harshest in decades.

“I thought I would perish,” she joked.

The subzero temperatures, Werner said, might affect people’s choice of foods.

“In California, we have yearlong fruits and vegetables at a reasonable cost,” she said.

Not so around here, she observed. Blueberries, for instance, are more expensive during the winter.

Besides, she said, “you may not feel like a salad when it’s so cold.”

In her 2 years, Werner has helped the health department with a number of efforts: promoting breast-feeding, pushing colorectal cancer screenings, discouraging smoking, assisting people with the Affordable Care Act, and increasing the agency’s social media presence.

Cathy Ferguson, the department’s administrator, said Werner has had a big impact.

“We’ve been able to expand our capacity beyond what we usually do,” Ferguson said. “It’s been rewarding to watch her learn and grow. It’s been a great experience.”

Werner occupies a small office at the department, which is housed in the new courthouse. On one wall is postcards from places she has visited, including Buenos Aires. On another wall hang a few pieces of artwork from students – with one depicting basketball players fighting over a spinach leaf.

She plans to return to California after she leaves the department July 16, which is, coincidentally, her birthday.

“I’m trying to savor my last few months here,” Werner said. “I’ve had such a good time. The health department is great. I’ve learned so much over 2 years. I will miss Dixon and Lee County so much.”

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