Whether it’s replacing sugary snacks in vending machines with healthier ones or organizing a community forum on how to make it easier for people to get regular exercise, Kelley Thompson is constantly on the hunt for things that will move San Diegans toward a healthier lifestyle.

Her target audience: busy working men and women in underserved communities where people focus more on paying the bills, than getting their daily dose of veggies and exercise.

“It takes at least six months to start seeing changes, for people to be aware of what’s being offered and to see that shift in culture,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen some amazing changes in the workplace. I love hearing employees say ‘I’m actually working out before work’ or ‘I’m eating more fruits and vegetables’.”

Thompson’s passion for a healthier community makes her a perfect fit at the UC San Diego Center for Community Health, where she is senior manager of the Worksite Wellness Program for the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch Initiative through San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. The program brings research-tested health practices to improve the community’s quality of life.

Kelley ThompsonAnd that same passion has earned her one of the highest honors in her field: the Community Leadership Award from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Thompson was one of 44 recipients nationwide recognized for improving the lives of others through sports, fitness or nutrition programs.

Thompson, whose daily routine includes a 6-mile run along the streets of coastal Point Loma where she lives, began her stint at UC San Diego as an intern. Four years and two promotions later, Thompson is an integral part of the center’s staff.

“Kelley has proven her abilities as a leader, educator, organizer, and passionate advocate of health promotion,” said Blanca Meléndrez, executive director of the Center for Community Health. “She’s effective in building and engaging cross-sector partnerships and has this ability to bring partners to the table and achieve results.”

Thompson served as liaison between San Diego residents and regional and statewide partners to help develop new tools and resources aimed at increasing physical activity among low-income communities. She helped facilitate a Safe Routes to Healthy Places community forum with 25 local organizations that generated recommendations that were incorporated into San Diego County’s three-year strategic plan.

As a result of the forum, Thompson and her colleagues developed Harvest of the Month Get Fit tools. These fun exercises, such as the Carrot Kick and Strawberry Squat, promote physical activity while helping to promote that month’s local crop.

Thompson currently collaborates with more than 40 local businesses such as hotels, supermarkets and farms that have lower-wage employees. She helps these businesses create wellness programs from scratch, whether it’s finding an energetic Zumba instructor, developing a new stretching class to reduce on-the-job injuries, or configuring a new lactation support program for working moms.

“For the companies, the return on investment is significant: if people are healthy, they’re more productive and stay longer. Employees are happier,” Thompson said.

As a result of the partnership, some businesses have launched walking clubs and offer regular fitness classes for their staff. Others have swapped out sugary snacks and beverages in vending machines for healthier options and subsidized local produce deliveries for employees.

Goodwill Industries of San Diego County launched an annual GoodMove100 Challenge, which encourages employees to walk 100 miles in 100 days and allows them to do so during their breaks.

"Kelley helps us to implement the dream we have to help people in their wellness efforts," said Mike Rowan, CEO of Goodwill Industries of San Diego County. "It's just a better work environment when people are well and feel well."

Thompson hopes to make further headway with these wellness efforts in the agricultural industry, by providing culturally appropriate health education and access to care for the largely Spanish-speaking employee population. She also hopes to reach out to local casinos to participate as well.

“It’s exciting to see the shift in the workplace’s culture and to see the program grow,” Thompson said. “It’s a good stage to be in.”