SNAP-Ed plays a part in creating community health hubs in schools

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.

A vibrant collaboration between the Health Department of Northwest Michigan (HDNW) and the rural school districts in Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties has helped transform school buildings into community hubs where residents learn to live healthier lives. Delivering Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) programming, HDNW has inspired teachers, their students, and families to find ways to eat better and become more physically active.

"The kids love it," says Rachelle Cook, Alanson Public Schools superintendent and K-12 principal. "I went in the classroom one day during the programming. The kids were just raving about the lesson they had with [SNAP-Ed instructor] Kirstyn. It was so much fun. She told me, ‘I love working with these kids!’ At the tail end of the lesson, the kids were so excited — and they were all asking when she could come back."

HDNW’s SNAP-Ed programming is made possible through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) 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 Michigan.

"For our small community, our school is centrally located. It’s a great place where people are already gathering," Cook says. "It makes sense to work more closely with our health department and bring in people from the health department to work with our teachers and students. We have learned that we are such a hub for the community."

In addition to their SNAP-Ed programming and partnership with Alanson Public Schools, HDNW  provides students with primary, preventative, and early intervention health care, as well as mental health services in other districts such as Boyne Falls, Charlevoix, Central Lake, Ellsworth, and Mancelona schools.

"We are looking at services and resources for the whole child: social, emotional, mental, and physical health," Cook says. "We know that if our kids don’t have their basic needs met, the academics aren’t going to happen. We’re working hard helping parents and helping our kids meet those basic needs and learn how to be a healthy citizen."

HDNW SNAP-Ed instructors lead the area’s elementary and middle school children in evidence-based nutrition education and physical activity promotion with the goal of increasing kids’ physical activity and consumption of fruits and vegetables as life-long healthy habits. They use a variety of SNAP-Ed direct education curricula in their work. For example, the Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities curriculum encourages children and their families to eat better and move more. The garden-themed Grow It, Try It, Like It! Nutrition Education Kit Featuring MyPlate incoporates fun activities to introduce fruits and vegetables to students. Children receive healthy homework and family newsletters to take home so they can share what they’ve learned with their families, which also inspires parents to purchase more fruits and veggies for the family to try at home.

"The health department brings programs like SNAP-Ed to our school that we would have never gotten," Cook says. "It was a no-brainer for me when the health department asked me [about doing SNAP-Ed]. They said, ‘We will come work with your teachers.’ And my teachers were very willing. The health department did all the legwork. I wrote a letter. They made it happen. It really works well for us."

Community Health Coordinator Kirstyn Horan delivers SNAP-Ed programming for HDNW. The week of July 20 was her first time back in the classroom, face-to-face with students since the pandemic stay-home orders were issued. She offered healthy taste-testings featuring fresh fruits and veggies to the children attending the YMCA summer day camp at Petoskey’s Ottawa Elementary School, which also serves as a Meet Up and Eat Up site.

Campers at the YMCA summer day camp at Petoskey's Ottawa Elementary School snack on their formerly mystery fruits and vegetables.
"When we have our healthy snacks, we ask the kids to give a thumbs up, thumbs medium, or thumbs down," Horan says. "This little six-year-old held up both of his hands and told me he was giving me 10 thumbs up." 

Lasting change = lifelong health

As part of its SNAP-Ed policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work, HDNW aims to improve health across the communities they serve by addressing issues where people work, live and play, so residents can easily make healthy choices.

With full-service grocery stores often at least 30-minute drive away, rural families living in the four-county area regularly purchase groceries at nearby gas stations and convenience stores that often lack a variety of fresh produce. To support nutrition efforts, HDNW encourages families to pick up locally grown fruits and vegetables from area farmers markets and food pantries.

"The PSE work has allowed us to do community improvement by getting input from residents in terms of what they see getting in their way of eating healthy and living actively," says nutritionist Lynne DeMoor, HDNW community health coordinator. "For example, residents told us they were wanting to find an indoor space for exercise during the winter. So, the school opened their gym for the community."

"I really admire our school districts. They really focus on what they can do to make their students healthier through a holistic, quality education," Horan says. "They take kids out to learn how to hike, snowshoe, and cross-country ski. They also emphasize providing nutrition education, like 'Eat fruit instead of fruit roll-ups.’"

Health Department of Northwest Michigan Community Health Coordinator Kirstyn Horan speaks to children at the YMCA summer day camp at Petoskey's Ottawa Elementary School.
When kids come home from school asking for fresh produce by name, parents are more inclined to make the effort to bring it home.

"We teach students how they can use fresh produce to make new and tasty recipes or just get them to try things they have never tried before," DeMoor says. "The health department has always been a pillar of the community and we do have a large community health division reaching out to schools. More recently, the role of the health department has become much more clear. We’ve really established a higher level of trust with our community partners, like the schools."
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