Alumni Chats: Lisa Helfman: Instilling Healthy Eating Habits, One Family at a Time

Lisa Helfman has been helping people less fortunate than herself for as long as she can remember. As a young girl, she used to tag along with her grandfather when he distributed food to people in the neighborhood. As an associate at V&E where she worked from 2002 to 2007, she helped non-profits and government entities raise capital to fund their public service initiatives.

Six years ago Helfman co-founded Brighter Bites, an innovative program that distributes fresh produce and nutritional education to families living in “food deserts” — neighborhoods where affordable, high quality fresh food is hard to find.

Since its launch, Brighter Bites has distributed more than 17 million pounds of produce and hundreds of thousands of nutrition education materials to more than 200,000 people. The program is now live in Houston, Dallas, Austin, New York City, Washington D.C., and Southwest Florida.

Brighter Bites is based on a simple, three-step formula: Bring surplus fruits and vegetables to schools and summer camps for families to take home. Mix in nutrition education using tools like handbooks and weekly tip sheets. Top it off with fun experiences such as recipe demos that drive home the value of eating fresh food.

In addition to serving as Board Chair of Brighter Bites, Helfman is the Director of Real Estate at grocery store chain H-E-B, a V&E client. V&E recently caught up with Helfman to learn more about Brighter Bites and what impact her V&E years have had on her philanthropic and career paths.

What sparked the idea for Brighter Bites?

My family participated in a fresh fruit and vegetable co-op, and because of consistent access to all this fresh food, my boys’ eating habits dramatically changed.  So much so that when Drew was six (he is now 13), he rejected cake at a birthday party and asked for fruit instead because the cake tasted too sweet.  I couldn’t get that moment out of my head and a few months later I thought, if I can do this in my house how do I replicate the same thing in underserved neighborhoods where fresh food access is low and childhood obesity and related issues are high?  I created a formula — Produce Distribution + Nutrition Education + Fun Food Experience — and then surrounded myself with all the experts to operationalize it, and Brighter Bites was born.

What Brighter Bites accomplishments are you particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of the fact that five years after we started our pilot, we’ve distributed over 17 million pounds of produce and hundreds of thousands of nutrition education materials to over 200,000 people in six cities.  And because we study every family we touch, we know that 74% are sustaining the same levels of produce consumption after the program is over to create lasting behavior change.  We’re empowering families to lead healthier lives and we’re creating communities of health through fresh food!

What are your ambitions for Brighter Bites? How big do you believe it can get?

I want to create a movement where fresh food is the new fast food, and everyone is aware of the health value of eating fresh food.

One city at a time, we would like to see Brighter Bites thoughtfully expand all over the nation, even internationally one day.

What’s your favorite healthy snack recommendation for parents to offer their kids?

Fresh fruit – just cut it up and make it accessible to your kids, and I promise you they will gobble it up.  If you want to get a little more creative, go with our Hulk Smoothie, which is simply made of kale, strawberries, apples and bananas.  Add some water and ice (if your fruit isn’t frozen), blend it up and you have a sweet, healthy snack.  Brighter Bites kids literally chase us for seconds!

You’re juggling two high level jobs while raising two young children. How do you manage your multiple responsibilities?

I take care of myself.  It’s very motivating to follow your passion to care for others and it keeps me going every day.  But I still have to take time to take care of myself to make all this happen.  So I practice yoga and meditate as well as run, and instead of going faster when things get challenging, I actually slow down to give myself space to preserve myself for these challenges.  Every time I do that, my mind gets sharper and I’m much more productive.  I call it slowing down to speed up. And of course, I eat healthy.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your V&E years?

An incredible work ethic as well as a tremendous problem solving ability.  There is nothing I can’t figure out by asking the right questions and pursuing the solution with diligence.

Who was your mentor at V&E and in what way did your relationship with your mentor help you in advancing your career?

Former V&E partner Barron Wallace.  He gave me the room to fly with our clients but also provided me with support when I needed assistance.  He also taught me an impeccable level of diligence and quality in my work.  That quality colors everything I do today and sets me apart from those around me.  A lot of people have ideas, but not everyone can execute them.  Barron taught me to execute at the highest level.

What message would you give to young lawyers working at V&E?

You can have it all.  You don’t have to choose between career success and health and happiness.  This may sound counterintuitive but if you start by focusing on your health and happiness, everything else in your career and personal life will just fall into place.  Work on making yourself the best you can be – which can only happen with optimal mind, body and spirit health – and you will achieve the results you want every time.