Genesee County organizations collaborate to create healthy local places

Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD) and Crim Fitness Foundation (Crim) deliver a variety of direct education programs that encourage youth and adults across Genesee County to eat healthy and move more. Both organizations also advance policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change strategies that address barriers to make healthy choices more accessible to county residents.

This work is made possible in part through Michigan Fitness Foundation (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.

Physical activity programming at a Flint city park.
When it comes to PSE work, collaborations are essential and the GISD and Crim collaboration exemplifies the synergy and success that can result. When the two organizations joined forces to explore the needs specific to the Flint area, two priority areas of need were identified: the lack of access to nutritious foods and the need to raise community awareness of the programs available to help them access healthy foods. To address those needs, GISD and Crim turned to evidence-based SNAP-Ed PSE strategies.

Crim Fitness Foundation SNAP-Ed educators lead a virtual session at Eisenhower Elementary in Flint.
Both organizations provide direct nutrition education to students. Knowing many families access food from area food pantries, they began working with food pantries to support students and their families to ensure they could practice the healthy eating behaviors they learn in class at home. Using the Voices for Food (VFF) Toolkit, they equip food pantry staff with the tools and information needed to support connecting people with healthy foods. This work reinforces learnings for students and their families and increases nutrition security and access to healthy foods for a diverse customer base in communities with high poverty rates across Genesee County.

"Folks are really reliant on the emergency food system, food pantries, and food distribution centers," says Samantha Farah, manager of food systems and nutrition at Crim. "We're working to support and strengthen that system because it is robust here in town."

Participants enjoy a Learning Kitchen class for adults.
As Crim and GISD deepened their work with food pantries and continued discussions about how to address barriers to healthy food access, they recognized taking a broader approach to examine and change factors that impact the local food system was a logical next step. With this in mind, they determined it could be time to develop a local food policy council.

"Having a food policy council also aligned with some research that was coming out in a four-year assessment of the Flint food system," says Leah Cox, project manager at GISD. "Preliminary results of that research found our community could really use a food policy council. Those two things happening at once really inspired us to ask, 'How do we get a food policy council started?'"

Again, starting with their work with food pantries, they held monthly Zoom meetings with Genesee County food pantry directors and staff. The meetings began in September 2020 and yielded valuable information about work that could improve the local food system. Resoundingly, input reinforced that having a functioning food policy council could help coordinate local food networks from farm to customer. They learned they could increase healthy food selections for people relying on food pantries and other places where people shop and, in turn, increase nutrition security in the community.

"The council was started from our SNAP-Ed work," Farah says. "We were able to find some champions, so right now the food policy council is a functional network for collaboration. This policy, systems, and environmental change work is really key to our success. We're wanting to make these large-scale, sustainable community changes. You can't do that in isolation."

To ensure it is a community effort and support its mission for “a robust and sustainable local food system that provides all Genesee County residents with affordable and healthy food,” the Flint/Genesee Food Policy Council is currently recruiting stakeholders from a variety of sectors across the county. Organizers invite area residents, business owners, local government representatives, farmers, school staff, and others who are involved or interested in their local food system to get involved. Cox and Farah provide support by identifying and enlisting a wide range of food- and health-focused community partners to help lead the work.

"The council offers a place to bring ideas to life, talk about the needs and gaps in our community, and create action or change around those in a way that is collaborative and strategic," Farah says.

Students enjoy MI Apple Crunch Day.
Through their SNAP-Ed programming, PSE work, and collaboration, GISD and Crim are opening up access to nutritious foods across the county. And, through their food policy council work, they are on their way to raising awareness in the region about the programs available to help Genesee County residents live healthier lives.

"Seeing all the people that have joined the council from different sectors so far, people who can actually make a difference in our community — it's exciting," adds Cox.
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