Five years ago, LiveWell Lawrence was founded by a group of community leaders who wanted to improve the health of Douglas County.
Instead of trying to change individual behaviors by offering more cooking classes or exercise programs, they decided to focus on promoting policy and environmental changes that would make it easier for residents to eat healthy foods and engage in physical activity.
The coalition received funding through the Kansas Health Foundation and awarded mini-grants in the community. The grants helped support efforts such as school gardens, school marathon clubs, passage of a Complete Streets policy in Lawrence, a new coalition of employers called WorkWell that focuses on wellness in the workplace, and a new restaurant initiative called EatWell that focuses on healthier menu options.
“It’s hard for a nutrition educator to sit back and look and say, ‘What we’ve been doing for many years isn’t working.’ But, it’s not,” said Susan Johnson, chair of LiveWell Lawrence and a nutrition educator for K-State Research and Extension — Douglas County. “The obesity epidemic is getting worse. We know that people have the information but it’s extremely difficult for people to change behaviors. We have to create environments that make it easier to make that healthy decision.”
LiveWell Lawrence already has made huge strides, such as:
• Promoting healthy foods in schools. For example, every Lawrence middle school has a garden and some of those gardens are providing produce for school cafeterias, farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture, commonly called CSAs, in Lawrence workplaces.
• Making healthier food options available in restaurants. There are 18 restaurants participating in the EatWell initiative. Owners and chefs are working with a Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department nutritionist to add healthy menu options. Some have switched from using whole milk to 1 percent, and some have started using whole grains.
• Enhancing physical activity in school-aged youth. There are at least 12 elementary schools in Lawrence that have a marathon club. The clubs meet before or after school and encourage students to run the distance of a marathon — 26.2 miles — over the course of a school year. So far, at least 1,100 students have participated.
“What is so wonderful about the marathon clubs is they are attracting kids that might not be active otherwise,” Johnson said. “That is the biggest plus. We recognize that when we buddy up — physical activity or eating right — we have more success.”
While LiveWell already has many success stories, Johnson said the group’s work is just getting started.
The coalition is tackling two of the five priorities in the recently released community health plan, “Roadmap to a Healthier Douglas County.” They are: physical activity and access to healthy foods. Johnson said it was a natural fit.
“The community health plan has given us new momentum that was needed in order to really get things going in an expanded and very focused way so we can accomplish the goals in the next five years that we really need to accomplish,” she said. “Now, we can really zoom in and bring the people to the table that we really need there in order to get the job done.”
LiveWell has recruited new members and reorganized into four work groups to tackle the issues outlined in the community health plan. The work groups and the leaders of each group are:
• Healthy Built Environment — Mike Myers, architect at Hernly Associates, chair, and Eric Struckhoff, former chair of the Lawrence-Douglas County Bicycle Advisory Committee, chair-elect. They will be focusing on how to make it easier for residents to bike, walk and wheel to everyday destinations.
• Healthy Foods for Low-Income Families — Christina Holt, of the KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, chair, and Verdell Taylor, pastor at St. Luke AME church, chair-elect. They will be working with farmers, pantries, grocery stores, transportation experts and others to help low-income families gain access to nutritious foods.
• Healthy Worksites and Public Spaces — Linda Koester-Vogelsang, of Douglas County District Court, chair, and Laurie Comstock, of KU Endowment, chair-elect. They will be working to increase opportunities for healthy eating and exercise in workplaces and public venues.
• Healthy Kids — Cris Anderson, Kennedy School principal, chair, and Vanessa Sanburn, Lawrence Public School Board member, chair-elect. They will be working to improve the nutrition environment for children, ages birth to 18, along with providing more opportunities for physical exercise.
Anderson, who has worked in education for 35 years, is passionate about kids and their health and that’s why she volunteered to not only join LiveWell’s efforts, but to chair a work group.
“I’ve seen kids in my building and in my classrooms that were overweight. I’ve had children who had diabetes and the health concerns that happen with that,” she said. “I’ve seen children who grew up in impoverished conditions and did not have good access to healthy food, and then you get into that vicious cycle of developing poor eating habits and never really knowing where the next meal might come from.”
Anderson said she’s excited about collaborating with others in the community to address these issues because she doesn’t think just one agency, parent, school or organization can do it alone. “It’s going to take a collective-thought process and hard work to truly make a difference,” she said.
Anderson is considering starting a marathon club at Kennedy after hearing about the successes at other schools, but first wants to talk with staff members and parents. “I could envision that happening very safely, very productively here on our school grounds,” she said. Anderson also believes much of the works begins with the adults — teachers, parents, coaches — who are involved in children’s lives.
“Kids are so excited about anything that a caring grown-up wants to promote and do with them,” she said. “As long as there is a caring adult there doing it with a kiddo, most of the time they are willing to take part and try it whether it’s physical activities or healthy eating. We need to lead by example.”
WANT TO JOIN?
If you would like to join LiveWell Lawrence’s efforts or learn more about the coalition, contact Charlie Bryan, a member of the LiveWell Lawrence executive committee, at email@example.com or 856-7357.