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Planting the seed: For a healthier Columbia, a community effort

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods fights the obesity epidemic with a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Thursday, November 10, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST
A group of gardeners have a meeting during a work day at the community garden on Worley Street on Oct. 22 The garden is part of the Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods program. A grant funded the garden, which aims to improve nutrition as well as make nutritious food more accessible in neighborhoods in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Two and a half years ago, the largest private health philanthropy in the country provided the PedNet Coalition with $400,000 to be spent over four years to address obesity in Columbia.

The focus of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant, which is part of a $500 million effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to reverse the obesity epidemic by 2015, is helping children with the highest risk of obesity based on race or ethnicity, income level and geographic location.

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PedNet set up an umbrella group called Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods comprising six teams with different assignments:

  1. Localizing food production;
  2. Encouraging the use of public transportation;
  3. Understanding food-buying habits;
  4. Revitalizing neighborhood associations;
  5. Increasing accessibility of fresh and healthy foods;
  6. Promoting advocacy among youth.

A goal of the grant is to fight obesity at the policy level to create sustainable change to the food and physical activity environment in Columbia.   

Halfway through the third year of the four-year project, there is $150,000 remaining, said Ian Thomas, executive director of PedNet Coalition.

The Missourian has followed up with the leaders of each team to see what's happened and what's left to be done. 

Residents of the Worley Street neighborhood are maintaining a new community garden. It gives them the chance to be physically active and get to know one another better. 

During the proposed transit cuts, Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit sent postcards to Columbia City Council members trying to stop the changes. The group has set a goal of tripling bus ridership during the next three years

Researchers have been surveying Columbia residents to determine where they get their food. They plan to use the results to figure out how to make fresh food available to more people. 

The Worley Street Park and Douglass Park neighborhood associations have recently gotten their starts. Efforts to revitalize neighborhood associations are centered on the First Ward and other parts of the inner city.

Another area of focus includes giving people who use food stamps more bang for their buck at the Columbia Farmers Market. There has been talk of creating a food policy council, but that has been given lower priority. 

Students completed coursework during the summer that was designed to teach them about healthy living and how to be advocates for change. Two of those teens are now working to get clubs that teach the same lessons into Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools. 

Columbia mentors other cities involved in the national obesity initiative through its role as a "leading community." Other  communities implemented projects such as getting healthier snacks into vending machines, creating standards for childcare providers and opening schools for exercise space.

Next page | Community garden offers residents the chance to grow their own food

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