Mary Story's mission in life can be summarized pretty succinctly: She wants to get kids to eat nutritious foods and live healthy lives. And she's been pretty successful at accomplishing that mission.
Story is a longtime professor in epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota and senior associate dean for academic and student affairs in the U's School of Public Health. Her research focuses on children and adolescents' eating behaviors and preventing obesity. That often involves working with schools and communities on nutrition programs. In addition to her work with the University, she leads a healthy eating research program on childhood obesity at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Despite being a star in academia, Story says she "wasn't a very good student" at Minnetonka High School. "I was really interested in what was going on at the time, but not necessarily from a school standpoint. I did a lot of reading on my own."
But she remembers at least two teachers who really inspired her, Tim Berg in English and John Elliot in Social Studies.
"Mr. Berg just had a real passion for teaching the literature," she says. "And Mr. Elliot really taught critical thinking, which was such an important skill. Expectations were high for students academically and the teachers really cared."
After working her way through college and earning a PhD in nutrition, Story set her sights on helping children, particularly those in lower income settings. For her dissertation, she worked with adolescents on a Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina, and has been helping young people make health and nutrition improvements ever since.
"I've always been interested in more community-based work - how a community can make changes so its people can eat healthier," she says, adding that she gets a lot of help from her colleagues.
"I work with people who really care about making the world a better place," she says. "They are really smart, dedicated, committed people who make it fun."
The feeling is mutual. One of those colleagues, Mary Smyth, says, "It would be difficult to find anyone with more expertise, dedication, and commitment than Dr. Story. And her students have always extolled her virtues. In fact, several Native American staff members in projects she and I implemented on reservations in South Dakota became interested in community health careers because of their work with her."
It's during that work in low-income communities and on reservations that Story sometimes makes some shocking discoveries.
"We've worked with children who couldn't even tell you what a potato or a radish was," Story says.
"Children who didn't know what salsa was or had never seen an apple on a tree or didn't know the name of a cucumber. You never really get used to that."
The programs Story helps develop give children more access to fruits and vegetables and help them learn to enjoy them. So the sadness at seeing a child's situation is often tempered by watching him learn to appreciate something he had not previously tasted, like fresh broccoli or a sweet blueberry. "You can just see the joy on their faces," she says. "And that's really gratifying."
Smyth recalls many instances of family nights on Indian reservations in which she and Story encouraged parents and grandparents to consider more healthful eating for the younger generation.
"We often heard later that Mary's enthusiasm and genuine concern directly motivated them to begin making healthier food and beverage choices for their families," Smyth says.
Growing up in Excelsior as one of eight children, Story never lacked for food, but she has come to appreciate the difficulty of those who do. And she has made it her life's work to educate people and help them improve their nutrition habits so they can enjoy their lives even more - which they always do, after they find out what they've been missing.