Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District promotes active, healthy communities

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

The Gratiot-Isabella Regional Education Service District (GIRESD) has begun advancing policies, systems, and environmental change (PSE) in central Michigan to support residents’ health and well-being. Using Michigan Fitness Foundation’s (MFF) Promoting Active Communities (PAC) assessment and tools, GIRESD staff are on their way to having a better understanding of the barriers to active living and finding solutions to overcome those barriers.

PAC is made possible through MFF Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

As one of MFF’s longstanding SNAP-Ed grantees, GIRESD has been supporting health in Mid-Michigan for years by providing nutrition education and physical activity promotion in their service area. With direct education laying the groundwork, GIRESD has expanded their work to include community-based PSE strategies that help improve food access and create safe places for physical activity.

Bike trails in Clare provide opportunities for outdoor recreation.The PAC online modules provide assessment and audit tools to pinpoint areas of strength and places for improvement that will help GIRESD, in partnership with a community team, understand what makes it easy or difficult for people in the city of Clare to include physical activity in their daily lives. Each topic module includes both a community-wide assessment and a site-specific audit. The PAC is designed to examine what is working and how to overcome barriers related to active living to create vibrant places for everyone in the community. Direct observations are required for some modules and team members are encouraged get out in the community to explore the physical environment through a walk or bike ride in the specific areas in question.

"We ask things like: How many recreational areas were within walking distance of the school? How many doctors’ offices, dental offices, and parks were within walking distance of Clare City Park? Are the sidewalks in good shape?" says Cathy Rayburn, GIRESD comprehensive school health coordinator and SNAP-Ed program lead. "Are the parks well-lit and accessible to people with disabilities? Is it safe and easy for children to get from the bus to the school, or do they have to cross the street?"

The PAC assessment considered walkability in Clare, including its downtown.
In assessing parks, Rayburn found glaring disparities. “Some parks had covered shelters, hiking trails, docks for water access, and restrooms. Others didn’t, not even restrooms,” explains Rayburn. “We found our smaller communities have huge needs, but even in the larger communities there were issues. I was surprised at some of the conditions of the sidewalks that were in disrepair."

When GIRESD's PAC work is completed, a customized feedback report will share best practices to guide stakeholders.

Pettit Park Campground, located near downtown Clare, was studied for the PAC assessment.
"We'll look at the results of the completed modules and pick some of the lower-cost items to focus on first," Rayburn says. "For example, people in Clare said they needed lights in the city park, so we will work with the stakeholders and the city to figure out how to fund those and how to put lights in the park. This is a multi-year process. I think the PAC is very helpful just to determine what our local communities need."

A foundation for change

GIRESD’s PAC work is just one example of how they are advancing PSE through SNAP-Ed programming. Their PSE efforts look at the structures and systems that influence how the spaces where people live, learn, work, play, eat, and shop are developed, maintained, and used — and how they are overlooked historically through the years. By understanding the barriers to healthy living, they have the opportunity to create positive changes that support healthy living.

In addition to their PSE work, GIRESD uses SNAP-Ed direct education programs like Michigan Harvest of the Month™ to promote and support the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The resources provide hands-on opportunities for students to explore, taste, and learn about the importance of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables during their core nutrition lessons.

Cathy Rayburn staffs a table offering nutrition information to the public.
GIRESD SNAP-Ed Coordinator Lily Boutwell visits 141 classrooms throughout the region to teach nutrition lessons and fitness activities. Her ultimate goal is to inspire students and their families to make healthy choices that will not only ensure children perform better in school, but will continue as adults.

"Our objective is to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and inspire families to move more," Boutwell says. “Through our SNAP-Ed work, we are working to build a healthier community.”

Boutwell and Rayburn find their SNAP-Ed work affirming and impactful. They recall the smiles on children’s faces when they tasted a raspberry for the very first time and the great questions parents have brought up when they tabled at school events.

"The kids always have a great time interacting with the fruits and vegetables and being active with one another. It’s fun, rewarding work,” says Boutwell.

When the PAC survey results come in, Rayburn, Boutwell and their community’s stakeholders will be even better positioned to create more positive change across the region GIRESD serves— from the physical environment to 141 classrooms and beyond.

“Through SNAP-Ed we are educating our families and learning what our community needs are. It’s a two-way street,” adds Rayburn.

Cathy Rayburn photo courtesy of GIRESD. All other photos by Liz Fredendall.