When I sat down for breakfast with Deborah Szekely at the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel in New York City, we cracked open our menus and couldn’t believe what we saw: organic oatmeal, organic fruit, organic yogurt. At a hotel chain in New York City? “Isn’t this amazing?” Szekely says, with evident delight. I mentioned that I wished organic food could be priced more reasonably, so that more people could afford it.
“Everyone needs to understand,” says Szekely, “the organic farmers are all struggling. They are not making money. They are there because they have a heart. Organic farmers are charging the lowest prices they can to survive, unless the government wants to subsidize them. One of the reasons for obesity is that fast food is so cheap.”
Rampant obesity–and the unhealthy eating habits that have led us to an epidemic of diabetes and dialysis–is what Szekely is determined to change.
And that is why she launched the nonprofit National Wellness Registry (wellnesswarrior.org), to connect individuals and small organizations to become one big voice for healthier lifestyles, to build a wellness movement, and to lobby Congress on policy regarding “the food you eat, the air you breathe, to ensure we preserve the earth and protect its people.” Her goal is to collect $10 from one million people to raise money for the lobbying effort.
No stranger to politics, Szekely lived in DC from 1984 to 2001, where she was president and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, and created a micro-financing model to address poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. She pioneered the first management manual for members of Congress, was the U.S. Principal Delegate to UNESCO and the Inter-American Commission on Women. “This is not like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’” she smiles. “I know Washington.” And, based on what she’s accomplished over the past 72 years, she will succeed.
Widely considered the founder of the modern health and fitness movement, Szekely opened Rancho La Puerta with her husband Edward in 1940. In 1958, she opened the Golden Door, a luxury boot camp open to 30 guests per week, which she sold in 1998. “Every movie star with a contract would come to the Door to get in shape first.”
Szekely recently celebrated her 90th birthday with the same energy she had when she was 60, which she attributes to exercise. Her regimen still includes one hour of Pilates four times a week and two and a half hour walks every Sunday with friends. Szekely turned over the reins at Rancho La Puerta to her daughter last year so that she can focus her efforts on the National Wellness Registry.
“My dream is that every McDonald’s will have its own chef and buy from the farmer’s market,” says Szekely. “I am not saying shut them down, just make them healthy.”