New Yorker turned Philadelphian Micaela (Mica) Root spent years in the trenches advocating for communities facing deep obstacles to health. So it makes sense that when this former life guard and travel writer — and current Bloomberg Fellow focused on obesity and the food system — made a positive change in her own health, she related her experience to the systems and policies that affect us all.  

Mica switched gears in her career in 2014, joining the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Get Healthy Philly initiative. There, she tackles tobacco use, poor nutrition and other underlying risk factors that drive the epidemic of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, facing the city. 

We talked to Mica about what happened when she left activism, the problem with how most of us view obesity and what being a part-time MPH candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health means to her.

micaela-root
Micaela Root

Tells us how your interest in obesity and the food system developed? 

My interest in obesity and the food system came to a head after doing a number of activist and nonprofit projects around health, hospitals in Philly shutting down and paid sick leave. After a while, I realized I needed to leave the activism and organizing space for a bit because I had become really unhealthy. I worked all the time and really lost track of my own health. 

Shortly before I made the jump out of full-time activism, I took a summer off to clear my head and start the process of getting healthier.

My ability to do that was influenced by the fact that I could take a summer off and focus on my health and myself, which was an incredible privilege that most Philadelphians don’t have. The combination of that experience and reflecting on it and the ways it’s connected to everything in our society, from inequalities and access to safe places to play to fresh healthy foods that all people can afford, set me on the path to do the work that I do now.

What is one of the biggest challenges you see in how we currently approach obesity?

I think it’s that we think about it as an individual issue, a problem only certain individuals have. Also, I think so much of our health is impacted by the social determinants of health. We have to get smarter about how we in public health are able to influence conversations around policies that are not just narrowly public health focused, but have to do with housing, labor and education, which are the key ways that economic inequality and racism play out in our society. Then we can begin to figure out how, through tackling some of these things, we can make the biggest impact on the biggest health problems we’re facing.

What are you most looking forward to in your time as a fellow?

I’m definitely excited to be able to delve deeper into the evidence base behind the work that I do. It’s something I understand the importance of and try to carve out in my regular life to learn about but rarely get to do with regular work and life demands. Having this sort of structure where I need to do that is incredibly exciting. I think all of us in all of our spheres can always be smarter and more strategic about what we’re doing.