Houston schoolchildren and other citizens of the city will notice a health-focused push over the next five years.
That’s because the Houston R-1 School District recently became a partner of Healthy Schools Healthy Communities (HSHC), an initiative of the Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) primarily designed to address childhood obesity. Through the five-year program, Houston will join the Cabool School District and Ozarks Family YMCA in Cabool (which both got on board in 2014) as recipients of HSHC grant funding in the initiative’s effort to increase access to healthy food and promote physical activity.
According to MFH data, 28 percent of Missouri kids ages 10 to 17 are obese or overweight.
“We need to ensure that when kids leave the classroom, they have healthy options at home and in the community,” said Texas County Wellness Coordinator Valerie Leonard of Ozarks Family YMCA (HSHC point person for the county). “It’s going to take all of us working together to improve the health of Texas County kids – from schools, to businesses, to community groups, to parents.”
The Missouri Foundation for Health was formed in February 2000 as a result of Blue Cross Blue Shield’s changeover from a nonprofit to for-profit company, because federal law requires that proceeds from the sale of tax-exempt entities be directed toward charitable purposes. Since its inception, the foundation has issued more than half-a-billion dollars in grants and awards, doling out about $45 million annually to health-oriented nonprofits.
This year, $85,000 came to Texas County via the grant.
“And that’s just implementation money to actually go out and do things,” Leonard said. “Technically the grant was about $153,000, but that includes paying my salary and covering all the necessary supplies and expenses.”
HSHC coordinators in Cabool made use of funding in a variety of ways, including striping bicycle paths, starting a bicycle club, installing water fountains at all public parks, outfitting elementary and middle school water fountains with water bottle filling stations, adding a walking track and playground equipment at the elementary school, adding a salad bar and P.E. equipment at the middle school and making the city’s YMCA facility available 24 hours a day.
Leonard said HSHC also helped introduce healthy foods to park and stadium concession fare, and school kids now take short “brain breaks” throughout the day to partake in a fun physical activities and an afternoon break to sample fruits and vegetables. There have even been healthy food cooking classes for adults conducted free of charge.
“We’ll be trying to move in even more healthy things next year,” Leonard said.
The HSHC strategy for 2015 in Texas County is still in the planning stages. By Dec. 15, Leonard and others involved will have completed an assessment of Houston called a “community healthy living index.”
“It will show what is currently going on in terms of physical activity and nutrition,” Leonard said, “and help us determine areas that need improvement or where things seem to be going in the right direction.”
A Salem native who now lives in Cabool with her husband, Benjamin (who is pastor at Cabool First Baptist church), Leonard said HSHC encourages participation from all corners of the community. She said several entities in Houston have already pledged support and are working to spread the word about new opportunities for children and families, including Texas County Memorial Hospital, the Texas County Health Department, the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce, University of Missouri Extension, the City of Houston, Houston United Methodist Church and Downtown Houston Inc.
Houston’s interest in HSHC is being administered by Houston Schools wellness coordinator Lonnie Lee. Public workshops will be included in the program’s agenda and a monthly “communications calendar” has been created to help kids and adults focus on specific subjects.
Leonard said one of HSHC’s goals in Texas County is to see a 5-percent reduction in childhood obesity in five years. The target population is kids in grades K-8.
“The younger kids are, the more impressionable they are and the quicker they are at getting into a habit of doing healthy things,” Leonard said.
MFH pays particular attention to “high need” school districts that have free and reduced lunch rate participation of 60-percent or more (Houston and Cabool are both at 100-percent) and childhood obesity rates of 17.1-percent or more.
“Twenty-five percent of Missourians have limited access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity can often be limited,” said Missouri Foundation for Health program director Amy Stringer Hessel. “Through Healthy Schools Healthy Communities, we want to help energize communities and provide the necessary resources to drive change.”
“We want what we do to have a long term effect beyond the life of our grant,” Leonard said. “We want to make changes that will stick.”
It’s going to take all of us working together to improve the health of Texas County kids – from schools, to businesses, to community groups, to parents.”
Information about upcoming events and other updates can be found on the Texas County Healthy Schools Healthy Communities Facebook page at www.facebook.com/tchshc.
For more information about HSHC in Texas County or to be a part of the program, email Valerie Leonard at email@example.com, Jim Taylor in Cabool at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lonnie Lee in Houston at email@example.com.
To learn more about the Missouri Foundation for Health, log onto www.mffh.org.