Henry Ford Health SNAP-Ed collaborations creating healthy change

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.

From creating free farm stands in Detroit to promoting healthier drinking water in the Jackson area, the Henry Ford Health initiative Generation with Promise (GWP) is supporting healthier families and communities across Michigan.

Launched in 2007, GWP aims to help Michigan's young people, their families, and communities "move more, eat better, and change lives!" It plays into HFH's larger goal of creating policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change so residents in metro Detroit and south-central Michigan can eat healthy and move more.

GWP programming 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.

Two examples of this exciting work are collaborations Henry Ford Health and GWP have helped build in Detroit and Jackson. In Detroit they helped connect two partners,  Eastern Market Corporation and Come Play Detroit, creating an opportunity for free farm stands in Detroit parks. In Jackson, they worked with the Jackson Community Action Agency (JCAA) to promote safe, delicious, and accessible drinking water in Head Start classrooms.

"Our SNAP-Ed PSE work and partnerships with these organizations really align with our overall mission and our commitment to the health and well-being of the communities we serve," says Barbara Blum-Alexander, director of GWP. "Healthy eating and physical activity are really upstream prevention of causes of chronic disease that we're trying to address."

SNAP-Ed as a catalyst for community change

In addition to its main farmers market in Detroit, Eastern Market convenes a network of 20 neighborhood farmers markets called Detroit Community Markets (DCM), which seeks to increase nutrition security in Detroit. Last summer, HFH facilitated a partnership between Eastern Market and Come Play Detroit. From this partnership, five additional farm stands were created with one significant difference: residents get to shop for fresh produce at no cost. The program is currently in its second year.

A farm stand at Patton Park in Detroit, sponsored by Henry Ford Health, Come Play Detroit, and Eastern Market.
Come Play Detroit partners with the Detroit Pistons to host Basketball for All, a program activating five city parks with free opportunities for physical activity. HFH knew Come Play Detroit was looking to expand their offerings by creating access to healthy foods at city parks. HFH staff connected Come Play Detroit staff with Eastern Market Food Access Manager Nicole Morba to explore opportunities.

"Having farm stands at our neighborhood parks is an incredible opportunity," Blum-Alexander says.

After working out the details to finance the service, the collaboration between Eastern Market and Come Play Detroit was realized, and free fruits and vegetables became available to residents at farm stands at Adams Butzel, Butzel Family Recreation Center, Patton, Rouge, and Zussman parks, where 10,000 pounds of 78 types of produce were distributed. This year, the program is taking place at Pingree, Rouge, Chandler, Palmer, and Romanowski parks.

A farm stand at Butzel Family Recreation Center in Detroit, sponsored by Henry Ford Health, Come Play Detroit, and Eastern Market.
While Come Play Detroit started promoting the free produce to their audience, HFH began promoting the resource to residents through their SNAP-Ed programming, which drew more people to the farm stands and the Come Play Detroit physical activity programming.

Word of mouth

Then, the farm stand staff started to notice that other neighbors started coming solely to access fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Once word started spreading, neighbors started telling each other about the free fruits and vegetables,” Morba says. "We are so happy and impressed with the results at our farm stands.”

"Because it's free, it's taking away the burden of thinking about your food budget," Morba says. "We find that with a tight food budget, the first thing to get eliminated is items that are perishable. We were able to provide free nutritious foods like tomatoes, greens, peppers, bananas, and Michigan blueberries and tell people, 'Take as many as you're going to eat.' It creates a nice comfort in the community."

Morba notes that the free farm stands are also building community. Local residents picking up free produce for their families sometimes ask if they can bring home a little extra for their homebound neighbors. A group of older women who attend other programming in their park wait about an hour after that programming is done for the farm stand, which sets up an hour later. To pass the time, they play cards together at the park, which also creates an important social connection.

"It is really rewarding across the board," Morba says. "The impact is immeasurable."

The farm stands are just the latest outcome of the HFH collaboration with Eastern Market. The two organizations have also partnered on the Fresh Rx Network, another coalition convened by Eastern Market. The Fresh Prescription program at HFH delivers weekly nutrition education and boxes of healthy food to participants. Another collaboration is HFH’s participation in the DCM network, where GWP’s SNAP-Ed-funded Youth Wellness Ambassadors have led DCM to adopt the inclusion of physical activity programming at farmers markets. The Youth Wellness Ambassador program brings high school students together to create solutions to their communities' needs, with a focus on healthy eating and physical activity promotion.

"We have a really robust relationship with Eastern Market Corporation and are able to apply our SNAP-Ed lens to the work," says Matthew Nahan, HFH project manager.

Safe, clean, delicious water

The JCAA supports residents in Jackson, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties with needs ranging from housing to Head Start programs. HFH has administered SNAP-Ed direct education programming in three of the JCAA’s Head Start centers for many years. HFH’s broader SNAP-Ed work has been a catalyst for change and continues to support broader, long-term, sustainable changes across the community, which has led to identifying ways to support healthy environments. For example, in early 2020, with encouragement from HFH, JCAA conducted a Healthy Kids Healthy Futures checklist assessment, which identified access to and visibility of drinking water as one opportunity for PSE change at the Ashton Ridge Head Start site. When the idea was taken up again in fall 2022, JCAA, with support from HFH, decided to help increase access to filtered drinking water not only at Ashton Ridge, but in a total of 35 classrooms in Hillsdale and Jackson counties.

“JCAA really took the idea and ran with it," Nahan says. "In an ideal world, this is how PSE work should go: identify the challenge and the partner leads the work.”

By applying SNAP-Ed PSE strategies to this work, partners are situated to identify barriers, brainstorm solutions, and create an action plan to inspire healthy environments together. Work that begins to address one issue in one community often blossoms into solutions that can be expanded to address similar issues across multiple communities, as evidenced by the work between HFH and JCAA.

As a result of the HFH/JCAA collaboration, Brita water filters, pitchers, and individual reusable cups have been delivered to Head Start classrooms in Hillsdale and Jackson counties. Plans are in the works to expand the program with the addition of no-touch drinking fountains where children can also fill their cups and bottles with fresh, filtered water. This type of change would also impact people living and/or working in the buildings where the preschools are located.

"Jackson Community Action Agency is creating change around increased visibility and access to water for students," Nahan says. "There's a lot of importance around staying hydrated all the time, particularly in this hot weather, as students are hopefully getting out and getting physical activity. But a big part of it, too, is promoting the importance of drinking more water as a way to reduce sugary drink consumption, which is really a challenge for young people."

When building collaborations like those HFH has created with JCAA and Eastern Market, Nahan advises organizations to take the time to build trusting relationships. He stresses that listening and observing is more important than being the loudest voice in the room. He also says to make sure that the community's agenda drives the work.

A farm stand at Adams Butzel Complex in Detroit, sponsored by Henry Ford Health, Come Play Detroit, and Eastern Market.
"Without collaborations, these PSE efforts wouldn't be happening," he says. "Collaboration is at the very core of being able to do PSE effectively. Without showing up, building trust, and making deep connections with community stakeholders, making change just won't work because you don't have the credibility. Collaboration is the very key to carrying out policy systems and environmental change work in a robust and meaningful way."

"It's amazing to work with all of these awesome partners, and to hear about what they do — their commitment and their goals," Blum-Alexander concludes. "Everyone wants to help the people in communities live fully and have healthy, active lives free from disease. You can teach people what they should eat, and even how to prepare it. But if there is no access to healthy food, then they can't live out what you're teaching them. Our SNAP-Ed PSE work allows us to carry this work forward in the community in partnership and collaboration with organizations and residents. That's the best part."