For a healthier Columbia, a community effort to fight obesity

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. 

Food production | Community garden offers healthy options for neighborhood residents

Over the summer, Andruletta Uptegraft and her 17-year-old daughter, Marissa Taylor, decided to conduct a "Magic School Bus"-type science experiment with their community garden plots. 

They planted tomatoes, squash, potatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, eggplants, corn and cabbage in their neighborhood's new garden. But rather than tending their vegetables regularly, they opted to let nature take its course.

"It kind of got out of control," Uptegraft said. 

Mother and daughter tried raising their own food on the Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods community garden that was established on a half-acre on the west side of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services parking lot at 1005 W. Worley St.

The Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods group working on food production used grant money to prepare the ground and asked for $5 donations for each of the 10 4-by-10-foot plots and $10 for the 16 4-foot by 20-foot plots.

The donations were used to buy tools and a picnic table. It was also designed to foster commitment, Michael Burden, who helped organize the garden, said.

The gardeners were from surrounding neighborhoods and included health department employees and clients of Women, Infants and Children, which provides food stamps under certain conditions.

The gardeners planted their crops in late April and early May, but the July heat took a toll on their produce.

“People were, what I would say, moderately successful,” said Maureen Coy, a health educator with the department and head of the food production group. “A lot of us had not had gardening experience before, so we were kind of learning as we went.”

The garden now has a water hydrant that helps keep the plants properly watered during tough summer months. Gardeners had to lug pails of water to and from their plots this summer.

There were a few plots in the garden with fall crops, and others were putting their gardens to bed for the winter.

Though most people kept their own produce this year, Coy said that next year the health department plans to ask gardeners to donate some of their crops to clients of Women, Infants and Children who attend the department’s nutrition classes.

Some of the money for the obesity efforts has also gone toward planting fruit trees and berry bushes on a portion of the land next to the garden, which belongs to the city's Public Works Department.

"It's hopefully removing that barrier of cost and access to those healthier, especially high-in-antioxidant-type fruits to get those in more people's bellies," Burden said. 

Overall, Burden said, the garden is helping connect people to their food, strengthening relationships among neighbors and creating an outlet for exercise. 

"Statistics show that people aren't eating as many fruits and vegetables as they should or maybe not purchasing them," he said. "If somebody has the opportunity, and they're provided the know-how or they already have the know-how to grow some of their own food, they're much more likely to use that food in their cooking."

Public transportation | Columbia residents push for increased bus ridership, better transit to combat sedentary lifestyles

About 30 postcards arrived in Barbara Hoppe's mailbox during the middle of the recent debate over city transit cuts.

The postcards, addressed to the Sixth Ward councilwoman, said the proposed cuts were too harsh and targeted the people least able to pay. They said the cuts weren't in the community's best interest and noted that public transportation decreases wear and tear on roads.

The postcards were distributed to citizens by Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit, the team working on public transportation through Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods, and sent to City Council members.

About 900 postcards were sent, Michelle Windmoeller, assistant director of PedNet, said.

"It always helps to hear people speak up and say what’s important to them," Hoppe said. "Sometimes, you just have to give them an effective mechanism to do that. I think it was helpful and had a helpful impact."

The postcards are one example of a key goal of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative: involving citizens in policy issues related to obesity.

Columbians for Modern, Efficient Transit set out to triple bus ridership during the next three years to increase physical activity by getting people to walk or bike to and from bus stops and to give people better access to schools and jobs. The proposed transit cuts, however, changed the group’s course of action.

Those cuts included eliminating Thursday, Friday and Saturday routes after 6:25 p.m. and increasing fares. Instead, the sole bus runs cut were the Thursday and Friday 9:30 p.m. routes, but there were no cuts on Saturdays.

“Luckily, we already had a team together. That allowed us to move quickly and get the word out to the community and have organized effort to try to stop the transit cuts,”  Windmoeller said. “If we didn’t have the public transportation team, who knows what would have happened?”

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods supports Mayor Bob McDavid’s vision for quadrupling the use of the transit system, Windmoeller said. Ideally, her group would like to see a bus system with frequent, convenient service that reaches all parts of the city.

“You know, pie in the sky," she said, "there are places where transit is free, so it would be great for Columbia to get to that point."

Food sources | In Columbia, socioeconomic status influences food choice and consumption

Whitney Martin, a nursing student at MU, spent a recent Saturday at Wabash Station, asking people where they buy their food and why.

Of the four she had talked to, most said they shop at Walmart regularly; one person had spent about $25 to $40 on food at a convenience store. 

"Your socioeconomic status has very much to do with how you eat and your weight," Martin said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who grow up in low-income families are more likely to be obese, even if the county in which they live has the lowest prevalence of obesity.

Martin's work is part of another project unfolding under Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods — a food survey administered by the MU Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems.

On-site interviewers asked people health questions about their demographics, food insecurity, where they purchase food and how often they consume fresh fruits and vegetables.

"If you're going somewhere to buy cigarettes or alcohol or gasoline for your car, are you getting your family's dinner there?" said Michelle Kaiser, a doctoral candidate and research assistant for the center.

The study examines alternative food sources: Buying produce from a farmers market, gardening or hunting. It also looks at how far food sources are from a person's home and how people get to shopping centers. Ideally, the survey will map out food resources in the community, Kaiser said.

The survey is posted on SurveyMonkey, and the site address is advertised on fliers around town. The site will most likely remain active until mid-November, Kaiser said.

The purpose of the survey is to identify needs in the community and try to find resources to meet those needs. For example, if there is a neighborhood that has limited access to fresh produce, maybe a supplier can set up a mini-market in that area.

"We don't want this just to end with a fancy report," Kaiser said. "Everyone should have access to healthy food. If there's something that we see that's not going well, then we've got to do something about it."

Neighborhood revitalization | Safer, productive neighborhoods mean a stronger community

Tyree Byndom said that when he goes outside at 1 a.m., he can see prostitutes walking the streets and kids selling drugs.

Byndom, who grew up in the First Ward, lives across the street from Douglass Park. In 2009, he moved back to the area and made a commitment to help better the community. Now, through Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods, he's revitalizing the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association. 

There are 80 neighborhood associations in Columbia, and about half are active, said Bill Cantin, who handles neighborhood issues for the city and co-chairs the neighborhood team.

The revitalization of neighborhood associations, particularly those in the central part of the city, has been accelerated by the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant, Cantin said. The associations are intended to increase conversations among neighbors about obesity, provide an avenue to give people more information about health resources and increase neighborhood safety so people feel more comfortable exercising.

The project's focus is on the First Ward and other parts of the city where demographics dictate poorer health conditions. Children from ethnic or racial minorities or from low-income families are often more susceptible to becoming overweight, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

According to 2010 census data,  19 percent of people in the First Ward were black, the highest concentration in the city. Four percent were Hispanic or Latino. Median income information wasn't available, but Verna Laboy, who heads up the neighborhood team with Cantin, said the First Ward is home to many underemployed, single-parent families.

Byndom said problems in his neighborhood include the prevalence of payday-loan businesses and liquor stores.

"People are lethargic, disenfranchised, distant from the process of community building, islands unto themselves," he said. 

Byndom held a meeting Oct. 17 at Douglass High School to begin a discussion and gauge interest in starting an association. Officers were elected, and the first meeting of the revived association was held Nov. 8. 

Just down the road, another group is getting off the ground. The Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association was started in May with Laboy's help.

So far, the association has elected officers, created a website and set a monthly meeting time. The group tried to organize a barbecue, but the event had to be canceled because of heat, chairwoman Meg Rivers said.

On Oct. 16, the Worley Street Park association teamed with other neighborhoods in the First Ward to hold a festival at Calvary Baptist Church with pumpkin decorating and a blow-up screen showing a kids' movie. The party was funded by the obesity grant.

The effort to better organize neighborhoods falls under the grant, but Rivers said she wasn't aware of how the new Worley Street Park association helps address the obesity epidemic. Members have discussed using the association to encourage healthy living and potentially hosting bicycle and pedestrian events, but there are no specific plans in place yet.

For Rivers, the neighborhood association is about building community.

"I have noticed people in our neighborhood are starting to know each other," she said. "I can wave at people driving by. If there's somebody in your neighborhood that you don't know that you do connect with, that makes your life better."

Teens become advocates | High school student coursework encourages healthier, active lifestyles

This summer, Nakita Cade, 17, took a picture of a bag of spicy cheese mix and a bottle of apple juice because that's what her friend called a healthy lunch.

"I understood, but at the same time I thought it was crazy she was only eating a small bag of cheese mix and a small thing of apple juice," Cade said.

Cade was one of 15 students, ages 12 to 18,  who completed a Photovoice project that was unveiled during a July board of health meeting. Students were asked to take pictures of examples of healthy living, as well as of things they'd like to see change. Then each student picked the photo he or she felt strongest about for a display planned for Rock Bridge High School.

"What I enjoyed was that we didn't dictate to the kids what they should take photos of," Sam Robinson, director of Healthy Community Initiatives, said. "One young lady, she had a picture of a Phillies Blunt. That's how she feels about her environment. That's unhealthy to her."

The photo project was part of PedNet's EmpowerME4Change curriculum, an eight-week program that taught students lessons about food systems, where food comes from and exercise, said Shannon Robinson, co-chair of the youth advocacy team.

Students are now working to form clubs based on the same curriculum at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools, Robinson said.

  • At Hickman, Cade and her friends wrote a petition to show how many students and teachers were interested in the club and presented it during homecoming.
  • At Rock Bridge, Shivangi Singh, 16, is trying to find a sponsor to serve as the club's adviser. She's also working to tweak some of the lessons to make them age appropriate, since the original curriculum was geared toward both younger and older students.

Members of these clubs would be held to the same commitments as the students who finished the curriculum — they could only drink 100 percent fruit juice, water or skim milk; they had to eat fruits or vegetables with each meal; they had to get nine hours of sleep a night; they had to exercise for an hour a day; and they could have only one to two hours of screen time a day.

The coursework for the club is designed to teach students how to advocate for change if they see something in the community they don't like and provide them with opportunities to articulate what they do like, Shannon Robinson said.

To help students be better received if they decide to attend public meetings, Sam Robinson and his staff are creating a toolkit to teach students how to use Robert's Rules of Order.

"We have a demographic of kids that, for whatever reason, adults might not feel that they're assets, but to the contrary, we realize that they are assets, and our job is just to support them and empower them to be advocates for themselves," Sam Robinson said.

The prospect of empowerment drew Singh to EmpowerME4Change. 

"What I saw in that program that I don't see in a lot of other programs is the chance for advocacy," she said. "It puts us on a platform so that we are heard."

Affordable healthy food | Food stamps go further at farmers market; food policy council effort stalls

Other Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods projects aim to make healthy food more accessible and create a food policy council. While the accessibility team has moved forward and doubled the amount of produce food stamps can buy at the Columbia Farmers Market, the food policy council issue has been put on the back-burner as other efforts take precedence.

Accessible and affordable food

For $25 worth of food stamps, clients of Women, Infants and Children can get $50 of food at the Columbia Farmers Market. 

There are 50 families signed up, and about eight or nine come each week, according to Hannah Sims, an intern with the team looking into access to healthy foods.

The effort to better connect low-income residents with the Columbia Farmers Market was started by Sustainable Farms & Communities. Grant money covered the $25 difference and contributed funds for potted herbs.

One of the challenges was reaching out to people who didn't already come to the farmers market. Of the people using the "double dollars," almost all had visited the farmers market before, Sims said. 

The access to healthy foods team is working to secure a health department grant to continue the program next year and expand its reach.

For families, the project has been "extremely helpful in letting them stretch their money," Sims said. "They've just been thrilled."

Food policy council

Food policy councils have sprung up around the country to address how food is produced, purchased and consumed at the community level.

There is discussion about starting a food policy council in Columbia. PedNet Executive Director Ian Thomas presented the idea to the board of health and is getting feedback. Since the city is trying to reduce its number of boards and commissions, there might be a short-term food policy task force created, Adam Saunders, president of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, said.  

There hasn't been as much work done on food policy because other projects, such as public transportation, were given priority.

"The food policy thing has kind of been in a holding pattern because those squeaky wheels got a lot of attention," Saunders said. 

Healthy Community Initiatives Director Sam Robinson said he and his staff will be “instrumental” in finding community participation for a food policy council when that time comes.

Models for other communities | Chicago, Fresno work to create activity space, healthy vending options

Of the 50 communities participating in the Health Kids, Healthy Communities project, Columbia has been designated one of the nine "leading cities" with providing an example to others through mentoring.

Here's a look at how three of the other leading cities are trying to reduce obesity:

In Chicago, the focus has been park-centric. Since the snack vending contract for the city's parks expired about the time the partnership began, Chicago was able to explore healthier options, said Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, lead health organizer in the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and director of the Chicago Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Partnership.

By the end of 2011, the 98 vending machines in Chicago's parks will offer snacks that contain less sugar, calories, sodium and fat, such as baked chips and pretzels.

The city's beverage contract expires in the spring; Gomez-Feliciano said she hopes the winter will be spent talking about getting similar options in those machines as well.

Chicago has also taken a policy approach by reducing the speed limit in parks that are connected by a boulevard system to make it safer for pedestrians.

King County, Wash., has directed its attention to culturally diverse public housing communities.

New standards are being tested that guide how much time children should spend in front of a TV or computer, the kinds of snacks they eat and the amount of physical activity they get. The county plans to adopt these standards for child care providers who work in the housing communities, said Elizabeth Westburg, resident services manager at King County Housing Authority.

She said the county hopes to develop similar guidelines for summer and after-school programs as well. The county has also replaced food in convenience stores with healthier options and plans are under way to increase overall pedestrian safety.

These projects were selected because after program leaders asked community members what their concerns about childhood obesity and obesity prevention were, Westburg said. 

For the Central Valley, Calif., area, a focal point has been the public schools. In Fresno, where there are few parks, the largest elementary school in the city opened its classrooms and green spaces to the community for yoga classes and pickup soccer games. 

Even though the outcome isn't directly related to obesity prevention, the benefits are evident, said Sabina Gonzalez-Erana, community building specialist for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. 

"You just see a flood of kids every weekend," she said. "There's more of a sense of community in that neighborhood." 

Soda has been removed from the vending machines in the area's public schools and drinking water is now more readily available to students. The barrier was the perception that kids don't like drinking water.

"They drink it," Gonzalez-Erana said. "They drink it, and it's not a problem."

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