Program partnership leads to healthy change

WILLMAR -- The store at the New London-Spicer Middle School was meeting a need, providing snacks to help fuel kids through after-school activities. But when it came to promoting healthful choices, the grade was mediocre at best, according to Tris...

New London-Spicer Student Store
Seventh-graders Grace DeSchepper, left, and Kaelyn Tanner purchase after-school snacks, before a workout, from Trish Perry, middle-school principal, at the New London-Spicer Student Store. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - The store at the New London-Spicer Middle School was meeting a need, providing snacks to help fuel kids through after-school activities.
But when it came to promoting healthful choices, the grade was mediocre at best, according to Trish Perry, school principal.
All of that changed when the middle school partnered with the Kandiyohi and Renville County Statewide Health Improvement Program to give the store a facelift.
“We repainted,” Perry said. “We bought new shelving. And most important, we bought new posters.”
The new signs put healthy options - lower-carb snacks, water rather than soda - front and center.
There’s a new refrigerator so that the store can adequately stock foods such as yogurt and string cheese. Portion sizes are better controlled.
Now hungry students can skip the not-so-good-for-you snacks after school and fill up on something more healthful instead.
The makeover of the school store is among the many projects undertaken this past year by Kandiyohi and Renville County SHIP.
The seven-year-old statewide program, overseen by the Minnesota Department of Health, aims to improve the health of Minnesotans by focusing on the big picture - policy and environmental changes leading to long-term sustainable improvement in health-related behavior.
Funding was severely curtailed in 2012, leaving about half the counties in Minnesota, such as Kandiyohi and Renville, uncovered. New legislative dollars approved in 2013 have allowed the program to reboot across the state, creating a flurry of initiatives at the local level to promote wellness and reduce chronic disease risk.
Projects that reached fruition this past year in Kandiyohi and Renville counties have partnered with schools, hospitals, businesses, cities and nonprofits. They ranged from the city of Willmar’s Yellow Bike program to a community garden in Sacred Heart.
“It’s great collaborative work in the community,” said Chery Johnson, assistant director of nursing for Kandiyohi-Renville County Public Health.
Individual choices and behaviors help shape health but the environment often exerts an even larger influence - for example, whether a given neighborhood has access to safe sidewalks for walking and biking or whether there’s ready access to fresh food.
“It’s hard to be healthy when your options are limited,” said Leah Schueler, Statewide Health Improvement Program coordinator for Kandiyohi and Renville counties. “How do you walk if you don’t have a safe place to walk? It’s a real thing that a lot of people deal with daily.”
To this end, local SHIP projects have sought to reduce barriers and improve access to nutritious food and physical activity for residents of Kandiyohi and Renville counties.
In Kandiyohi County, the program helped with the repair of a bioburner fueling the food-producing greenhouse on the MinnWest Technology Campus. In Renville County, it worked with the county to develop updates to the tobacco ordinance.
Much of the work has involved partnerships with area school districts. Projects have been aimed at making it safer for students to walk or bike to school and be active during the school day.
Some of the improvements have been practical - for instance, the addition of salad bar equipment for school lunchrooms. Others consisted of staff training and the development of a curriculum to incorporate more activity in the classroom.
The makeover of the after-school store at the New London-Spicer Middle School was part of a larger wellness policy effort to offer more healthful concessions, Perry said.
More than 90 percent of the middle school students are in some type of after-school activity and are often in the building until 5:30 or 6 p.m., she said. “We have kids that are hungry after school.”
The revamping of the store gives them access to better options for snacks and makes it easier for them to choose something healthful, she said, noting that the school also will be addressing the concessions sold at evening events.
“It’s been a great collaboration. We look forward to continuing our work with SHIP,” Perry said.
While it’s hard to attribute improvements in population health to a single factor, Minnesota has seen change, said Schueler and Hannah Abraham, SHIP health educator.
According to the latest figures available, obesity rates in Minnesota have remained flat since 2010 and the state’s share of low-income preschoolers who are obese is lower than that in neighboring states. The number of Minnesotans at a healthy weight in 2013 was 11 percent higher than the U.S. as a whole. Youth smoking fell from 18.1 percent in 2011 to just under 10 percent in 2014, the steepest decline ever recorded by the Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey. Adult tobacco use also dropped by two percentage points between 2010 and 2014.
The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that the Statewide Health Improvement Program will save $1.9 billion in direct medical costs by 2020.
“Prevention pays off,” Abraham said.
One of SHIP’s key contributions is to be a catalyst for local efforts that might not otherwise have come together, observed Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen.
“If somebody isn’t driving it, if somebody isn’t leading it and advocating for it, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

New London-Spicer Student Store
A mix of affordable, healthier snacks for students in after-school activities at the New London-Spicer Student Store. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

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