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Member Spotlight: Leslie Nettleford Inspires Others to Cook Their Way to Wellness

December 23, 2020

By John Murph

For some people, cooking is a necessity. For others, it’s a creative outlet. For Leslie Nettleford, it’s a combination of both. “I like creating in all aspects. So, cooking to me is just another way to be creative and make something delectable,” she says. “To me, that’s just the magic of creation.”

After the coronavirus pandemic upended many people’s work and personal lives, Nettleford’s interest in cooking magnified. While balancing her demanding career as associate general counsel at AARP, she prepares mostly vegetarian meals for her two grown kids. Nettleford felt it was important to raise them as vegetarians early on to instill a healthy relationship with food, but when they were about two years old, she let them decide whether to eat meat. When she tried to introduce meat into their diets, Nettleford recalled her kids “turning up their noses at it.” 

“They didn’t like the smell of it; they didn’t want anything to do with it. And when their vocabulary became more advanced, they started calling me a carnivore,” she remembers with a laugh. 

Her family’s favorite dish is pasta with lots of Italian seasoning; vegetables such as carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and tomatoes; and herbs like parsley and fresh basil. “I call it the ‘disappearing dish’ because when I make it and turn around, my son has consumed most of it,” she says. 

In an October 2020 virtual video stream, she prepared that dish for the Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church as part of its “grocery grab and go” presentations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was a chance for me to share my goals and desires for people to eat healthy,” she says. “Every day you make choices about what you’re going to put into your body. Are you going to have a bag of chips or are you going to have that apple? And that apple may not seem alluring right now, but your body will thank you for it later.”

Growing up in a West Indian household in Brooklyn, New York, Nettleford says her earliest memories of cooking are of her mother preparing such popular Caribbean meals as rice and peas. “Whatever she cooked, I tried to emulate but put my own twist on it,” she says. “Even though I consider myself West Indian American, my food is going to have a little bit more American flair to it.”

Workplace Wellness
For more fanciful meals, Nettleford finds recipes in AARP The Magazine. Flipping through the magazine for recipes is not a casual pastime; it’s part of her job as associate general counsel. She reviews contracts involving the magazine’s ability to republish content from cookbooks and other sources. 

In fact, Nettleford reads entire issues of the magazine with a fine-tooth comb. “I make sure we don’t have any copyright or trademark issues,” she says. “I answer lots of intellectual property questions that pop up every day.” For an organization that prides itself on innovation, she helps AARP unlock ingenious ventures with minimum legal risks. “I see my job as creating ‘yes’ opportunities.”

AARP also gave Nettleford another platform to practice wellness. Several years ago, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins launched a company-wide challenge, encouraging its women employees to create in-house strategic engagement and employee resource groups that motivate them to “lean in” regarding their career ambitions. When Jenkins was talking with staff members about the mission, Nettleford raised her hand to point out that there was no mention of wellness. “Jenkins responded, ‘Leslie, that would be great. That would be good for you to launch,’” Nettleford says. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute. She knows my name?’”

Nettleford rose to the occasion by creating a corporate “lean in” fitness circle with this motto: “If your only heavy-lifting [exercise workout] is your 12-hour-day workload, you need to join our group.”

“It was basically about incorporating healthier moments into our busy work lives,” Nettleford explains. “And being intentional about it by making small changes for the better.”

AARP’s wellness group grew from 50 members at its launch to 300. “That spark of wellness really helped motivate me to become healthier and to engage with others so that they will become healthier as well,” Nettleford says.

After forming and serving as chair of AARP’s wellness group, Nettleford has passed the baton to the new chair-elect. Nettleford is happy to see that group continue without her leadership. “I like leaving a legacy,” she says. “That’s not personality driven but purpose driven. That’s helped me to have a better mindset when it comes to wellness.”

Puppy Love
Since the pandemic, Nettleford has found a new way to stay mentally fit: puppy therapy. Her daughter had been asking for a dog, but she was reluctant to get one because she considered them “perpetual babies” needing so much attention.”

Working remotely at home, surrounded by other people, Nettleford finally allowed herself to envision the prospects of adopting a puppy. After getting over the hurdles of house training and countless dog walks, Nettleford says she loves it. “Walking the puppy in the mornings and evenings gets you out into nature,” she says. “And then just the companionship. There is nothing like hugging a little furry puppy who loves you unconditionally. It’s just such a great feeling  to have that little oasis of love amidst everything that is going on around you.”

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