Food & Drink

Advocate of healthy eating hopes for a day when it's the norm, not the exception

Anita Courtney uses an exercise bicycle desk as she works at The Plantory. Courtney worked as a nutritionist for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department before she left to become a consultant.
Anita Courtney uses an exercise bicycle desk as she works at The Plantory. Courtney worked as a nutritionist for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department before she left to become a consultant. Herald-Leader

Anita Courtney, Lexington's resident good-eating guru, has a guilty secret.

She's eaten junk food in her past. Plenty of it.

Yes, Courtney, who is known for tirelessly promoting exercise and healthy snacks, said she "grew up eating Pop Tarts, Tang, Fritos and Twinkies."

Courtney, who was recently honored as a Health Hero by the Lexington Fayette County Health Department, said at the age of 13 the error of her ways hit her like "a lightning bolt." She needed to give her body a better kind of fuel.

"I think I got the idea from a teen magazine," she said.

In 1969, long before you could find things like shelves of whole wheat bread and an entire refrigerated case devoted to yogurt at every grocery store, she was trying to get her mom to stock the house with healthy offerings.

"She brought home a green pepper. I had never seen anyone eat one, so I ate it out of hand like an apple," she said.

When she moved to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky, she fell into kind of a hippie heaven complete with many healthy food options. There was the Good Foods Co-op and Alfalfa (where she met future husband Jake Gibbs).

"It was all very cool," she said.

After graduation she went to work as a nutritionist for the Lexington Fayette County Health Department. She knew she'd found her calling right away.

"I would do anything I could do to get people in Lexington to get healthy."

But, she said, even in the mid-'70s, the cause she promoted "seemed pretty far out on the fringe."

"Over time those things became mainstream, but early on, my credibility was questioned," she said.

But she stuck with it, starting community gardens and even promoting healthy-snack "nutra breaks" at work.

Through it all, she said, she had a cause. She saw how being unhealthy diminished people's lives, and she wanted to help.

Carol A. Bryant, hired her at the health department.

"Right off the bat I knew this was the best person we have hired in a long time," Bryant said.

Bryant, now a professor and health researcher at the University of South Florida, continues to work with Courtney. She has long been inspired by not only Courtney's skill but also her passion.

"She just really cares," she said, adding that Courtney is a combination of "hard work, integrity and a passion for making health food accessible."

In recent years, Courtney has left the health department and works as a consultant. She organized the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition with people from across the community who are concerned about health and wellness of young folks.

Her most notable successes include the VERB Summer Scorecard campaign, which from 2004 to 2007 encouraged youngsters in Lexington to get out and exercise. The scorecard program has been copied all over the country.

The coalition is in its second year of the Better Bites campaign, which encourages healthy snack options. It's already in place at the Lexington Legends' ballpark, Fayette County public pools, Southern Middle School's Yum Yum Shop (an after-school concession stand) and the YMCA. The coalition recently started a restaurant program that encourages healthy kids' meals. Next on the agenda, improving access to healthy foods by working with small, neighborhood grocery stores.

"Our coalition aims to make healthy food accessible and popular for tweens in their homes, schools and communities," Courtney said. She sees a day when healthy options are the norm, not the exception.

Many of these programs were models in Bryant's research.

"My haunting problem is that while we've had stunning success, we have to ask is it our model or is it Anita" that is making the programs succeed, Bryant said.

Healthy and handy

The Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, which you can find at, is attempting to change the food culture in Fayette County with:

Better Bites: Going into its third year, this program makes healthy snacks such as fruits and veggies with dip available at places kids gather. It started at Fayette County public pools and has spread to the Lexington Legends ballpark. Most recently, Southern Middle School changed to healthy snacks at its school store.

Better Bites Bike: Good to Go: A bike with a cart attached will begin rolling through Lexington this summer. Think of it as a healthy version of the ice cream truck.

Good Neighbor Store: The coalition is working with neighborhood stores and the communities they serve to make healthy, affordable options available in areas where shopping options can be limited.

For more information: Anita Courtney at