In 2013, Missouri Foundation for Health launched Healthy Schools Healthy Communities (HSHC) to improve the health of children by making sure all kids have access to nutritious food and places to run and play safely. This was no simple task given the variety of conditions that influence health, especially the health of children.
Every day children are flooded with unhealthy food options – whether that’s concession stands serving candy and sodas at soccer games, processed foods from vending machines in schools, or too many cupcakes at classroom celebrations. In addition to the lack of quality food choices, most of our neighborhoods are not designed for exercise and recreation. Some roads don’t have sidewalks for kids to walk to school. Other places don’t have enough parks or outdoor spaces for kids to explore the environment and be active. And due to time constraints, some schools can’t offer enough opportunities for kids to burn off energy throughout the day.
All these factors together contribute to Missouri ranking as one of the heaviest states in the country and can prevent kids from having a healthy start at life. Children who are obese are more at risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. It also leads to shorter lifespans by an average of 2-5 years and has significant health care costs for individuals and our state.
Walk-to-school programs get more students moving before and after the bell
Cooking classes turn the kitchen into a tasty place to learn how to prepare healthy foods
Flash mobs are a fun way to get out energy
Field days encourage students to get active during the school day
To tackle childhood obesity, we knew it would take a diverse group of partnerships – both in and outside of schools – working together on local solutions to generate positive changes. The initiative brought together schools, students, parents, businesses, nonprofits, and Missouri residents to create healthy opportunities for kids in the classrooms, on the playground, at home, and throughout cities and towns across the state.
Including salad and fruit bar in the cafeteria
Planting gardens for students and staff to enjoy
Installing playground equipment
Over the course of eight years, HSHC school district and community partners implemented 2,307 events and programs and 916 practices, policies, and environmental changes. From introducing more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias to renovating bike trails – communities came together to make it easier for kids to eat healthy and be active. Together, these improvements have made a promising impact where kids live, learn, and play.
“In our school newsletter, we’d always encourage parents to try new things with their children or walk around the block with them. We have a walking trail around our football field, and a lot of people go out there because it’s lit up and they can exercise in the evening. It’s such a small town and we have so little as far as exercise options. But community members noticed the track at school because even people who didn’t have kids would come to use it. We put some information in the paper, too. Older people who may not have kids in school anymore would come to use our facilities. And that was nice that it went beyond just the parents and their kids.”
“I volunteered to do the walking school bus, and I walked a few times. My husband got all the routes together, and we walked it every day the last school year. We started where our home was and went a little further to pick up the students. We probably had the longest route – a little over a mile. They’re so funny. Volunteers run it and kids just love it. They want to know why we didn’t do it when it rained or when the temperature is too cold. They’ll be like, ‘It wasn’t that cold. We could have walked.’ When we did have good days, they were looking forward to it.
Since my husband and I retired, we just walk back after dropping the kids off. Some of the teachers said that the kids are a lot calmer when they come to the classroom after a morning walk because they get a lot of that energy out. So that’s been good. And one of the things the kids asked us was, ‘How come we can’t start walking home, too?’ I said, ‘That’s something to think about.’”
“Kids are in school for a limited time, and then where do they go after? A parks department plays a big role in community health by offering open spaces, community centers, and programming. Having those spaces easily accessible in every area of the community is vital to carrying out our mission. Part of my job is to develop relationships. So our department partners with hospitals, schools, and various community groups in town. We’re reaching a lot more people through new classes, a bike-share program, and outdoor recreational activities which were instituted to bring mountain biking courses, disc golf, or ropes courses to people. The idea is to be healthy, outside, and active.”
“I’ve been head cook here for a while, and I don’t know how many years I have been in charge because it’s not really a job. I cook, but I get to be so creative within the boundaries of the state and local guidelines. Man, I have a lot of fun. What’s important is expanding our students’ palates to be something beyond a chicken patty and school pizza. It’s an old thing, you know, the lunch lady. Well, I’m the new generation. I see a recipe, then I want to turn it around and make it more fun instead of doing the same old, same old.”
“I like how [Healthy Schools Healthy Communities] involves kids so they can be a part of important decisions. They’re the ones that are here every day, and we need to make sure that we have an impact on their lives. When these kids get nominated [to become a Wellness Ambassador], they’re eager to make their school a healthier place. Getting feedback from them is important. We’re in the process of building our next wellness ambassador team for this year, and my goal is to continue having them be a voice in their classes and to do a great job of being a healthy example.”
“I was part of the group of Wellness Ambassadors with third, fourth, and fifth graders. Each teacher had to choose one person from their class. We had meetings every couple of weeks in the mornings, and we talked about what we should do. Sometimes I was nervous when I was talking. Sometimes I was excited. And our main focus was, how do we keep people healthy and active? We thought of the idea to do a bunch of games at the parks and rec, so we had soccer, wiffleball, golfball. There were peppers, carrots, broccoli, bananas, and apples. And everybody was invited."
“The mobile food stand has been our biggest success. I was kind of against it at first. I didn’t think our kids would go for healthier foods. I’ve run a couple of the youth sports programs and the nachos go, and the sodas, and candy, and nobody wants anything healthy. But people said, ‘Just try it.’ And we did. I wrote the whole proposal for it. The first year, we made it 80% healthy and 20% unhealthy. The next year, we did 85% and 15%. And the next year, 90% and 10%. I said, ‘We’re going to try it, but it’s not going to be a success.’ I was totally wrong. If you don’t give the kids those options, they’re going to eat anything anyway. They just want a snack. So if you give them a healthy option and don’t give them the bad options, they don’t seem to care.”
“We were gifted with taking over the Monett Area Farmer’s Market. This is an area that needs better food resources. Walmart is quite a ways away on foot. So the market was moved downtown to a new wonderful pavilion that has a park next to it for kids to play. It has wifi, too, so vendors can charge customers with Square. Our big thing that we’re wanting to do is to allow shoppers to use EBT and SNAP. They haven’t been able to do that yet. A lot of the disparities that we’re seeing in the community tie to mental health and chronic disease. But, in the United States, economic disparity is actually the number one cultural health disparity. So being poor is now considered your culture. And the cycle of poverty is not stopping. It’s just matriculating. How do we utilize the things that we know improve rural communities to extract people from the cycle of poverty when they don’t have the resources? Can we use a mental health provider? Because 20% of people that visit food banks and food pantries in Barry County also have a substance use problem or a mental health disorder. Eight percent of them do not have transportation. So how do we get healthy food to those people? Because if you have a mental health disorder and another chronic disease, or comorbidity, and you’re getting food from a food pantry, is that the food that you should be eating?”
“I’m a St. Louisan through and through: elementary, middle, high school, college – all of the works. I grew up in the West End, then my family moved to North St. Louis City and I was exposed to a lot of things outside of my neighborhood. I come from a family of educators, so we went to the library, the zoo, the history museum, the art museum, and science center. We did all of that stuff. However, I noticed that things changed once you’d hit Delmar, and I never understood why that was the case. On one side, you see people walking and jogging and different types of business establishments. On the other side, you see a lot of liquor stores and beauty supply stores, and I’d wonder, ‘Why is that?’
As I got older, I understood more about how people are born under certain circumstances. But just because you live in a certain part of town, zip code, or municipality, that shouldn’t dictate your wellbeing and your access to live your best life. You should be able to shop for healthy foods in your community. You shouldn’t have to go west or south to a grocery store. Imagine folks who don’t have a car, limited to shopping at Family Dollar. I thought about the kids in those communities and their access to quality education. I learned about systems, including structural racism, and I wanted to do something to change that.
In my role, I partner with schools. Two of the three are provisionally accredited. They’re not even fully accredited. We have to do something to make sure all of our children have an equal playing field. We have to make sure that our youth have access to quality education, healthy foods, and recreational opportunities, so they can live and thrive where they are. It shouldn’t matter where they live. Everyone should be able to live their best lives. We should not have a better health outcome because of where we live. That’s not okay for me. And if we don’t set up our future to thrive, we’re going to be in a whole heap of trouble.”
“I work in the community a lot. Our senior citizens always share that they’re on a fixed income and how sometimes the prices in the grocery stores are just too much. They’re looking for alternatives to buying their fruits and vegetables, and that’s where the St. Louis Metro Market bus comes in. To be honest, the first time I saw the bus, I was like, ‘Yeah. Okay. Right...’ Then I got on, and I thought, ‘Wow! How in the world did they fit all this stuff in here?’ It’s a bi-state bus that’s been retrofitted. Every vegetable has its own bin. You can find the pricing very easily. It’s so convenient. I’m in love with it.”
“The number of stops and the places the St. Louis Metro Market goes has grown a lot since we started. Our first year, we had one stop on Saturdays in North City. Our second year, we added a stop in North County. Our third year, we had eight stops per week evenly split between North St. Louis City and a variety of stops in municipalities in North County. So we scaled up and expanded to address some of the real needs around food access there. How and where we end up is always kind of a blend of art and science. It has a lot to do with relationships and who reaches out to provide a path towards sustaining our presence. We’ve had a lot of success partnering with the YMCA, the Urban League, health clinics, and libraries – places that folks are already coming to on a daily basis. It makes sense to park the bus there because it’s convenient. People don’t have to make an extra stop to go to the grocery store. And we get a built-in level of foot traffic business.”
“My favorite event was Dog Days, when brought in a bunch of puppies and dogs from the shelter. It was my masterpiece! We made it a mental health break for people to come in and pet them. We got a pit bull mix and a black labradoodle adopted and I almost brought one home, too. But we had a photobooth for people to take pictures, and people literally just came by and chilled out for a bit. With all the daily stresses, it was a mental health break. It was great to see all these kids and people who came in to take pictures and were so happy for the 10 minutes they were there. They weren’t worried about the 100 other things on their mind.”
“With the healthy celebrations, we’re finding out that it doesn’t bother the kids if we don’t allow cupcakes anymore. The kids just want to be celebrated. And, really, parents just want to know their kid is being celebrated. St. Louis Public Schools started doing something that I want to try. Say it’s October, and your kid has a birthday. At the end of the month, we have a Gym Jam and it’s 30 minutes in the gym with loud music, and whoever has a birthday that month gets to go to the gym for that half an hour during school.”
“We have student wellness teams that meet to brainstorm different ideas that promote health and wellness that they think their school’s students will be interested in. In every building, they’re doing different things. Some are partnering with their Student Senate to communicate their goals and give voice to policies and procedures. We gave students the chance to take a Google survey last year. We have about 700 kids here at the high school, and many more than expected participated. It was not like three questions either. It was pretty long, and some of our students wrote paragraphs. We realized they really were interested in their health. What came up a lot was mental health, stress management, more variety for healthier options in the cafeteria, and water bottles for everyone since some can’t afford them. So we moved forward with a lot of their ideas. We did a student-led wellness week with fruit tasting and water infusers. We made educational announcements. Students started adding something into the newsletter every other month with whatever we were talking about – this month it’s sleep. They seem to have fun coming up with suggestions and seeing them come to life.”
“All the focus is on the students and their families first, and then the community. We consider the school to be the hub, and then the surrounding community needs to be engaged and involved and pulled in. And that’s exactly what our partners have done. For instance, it’s the Gateway Schools, but it’s the Carr Square Community. The need was for a safe place for physical activity – so, the trail was built. And it’s located here at the school – the hub. BJC School Outreach Youth Development has been a fantastic partner to collaborate with the whole time. They hold community meetings all over the city, and they’ve pulled in so many resources and people. Another example of partner outreach took place with the street behind Woodward Elementary School is Bates. And drivers would run a stop sign on that street, which was dangerous because there’s a playground right there. So our community partners realized that needed to change when they did the Community Healthy Living Index. They went to the alderperson, secured government and community support, and ended up getting bump outs, a big crosswalk, flashing signs, and crossing guards. It was just a huge win for all of our students and everybody. So they’ve had tremendous success.”