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.
Across Michigan, organizations are partnering to teach interactive nutrition education programs to low-income Michiganders so they can make healthy food choices within a limited budget and choose physically active lifestyles.
As a State Implementing Agency for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations and uses a multi-sector collaborative approach to build and implement their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) programs – with a focus on partnerships and coalition work. SNAP-Ed nutrition education programs are designed for SNAP participants, those eligible to receive SNAP benefits, and people who reside in communities with a significant low-income population.
The Safe Routes to Health AmeriCorps Program at Michigan Fitness Foundation (SR2H) addresses unmet health needs in underserved, low-income communities. Developed by assessing both barriers to healthy living and opportunities to overcome those barriers, it uses a multigenerational approach to reach across an entire community. SR2H engages AmeriCorps members to connect citizens to health, wellness, and physical activity programs by implementing program components and recruiting local community volunteers to create sustainable change. MFF has been able to extend their SR2H reach by coordinating with SNAP-Ed partners in communities to complement the nutrition education and obesity prevention components of SR2H programs.
An SR2H member attends a high school mental health day to promote walking.
MFF SR2H Project Manager Shona MacKenzie says SR2H members collaborate with local SNAP-Ed partners and leverage resources to help develop robust programming.
“It's great to hear from our SNAP-Ed partners and identify ways our SR2H members could come into the community, work beside them, and see what they do that we could adapt to be successful in our own [SR2H] programs," MacKenzie says.
Dedicated SR2H members are placed in communities to deliver health programs with local organizations in community settings. MacKenzie shares, “For their service, SR2H members learn valuable skills, earn money for education, are able to defer current student loans, develop a strong sense of civic responsibility, and get to contribute to their community.”
In Muskegon, SR2H member Cindy Kendall has arrived at Jefferson Towers, a 161-unit affordable housing community, with home-cooked meals and nutrition education to share with residents every week for nearly two months.
"I enjoy it," Kendall says. "I've always had an interest in cooking and baking, and this helps me connect with others and show what you put in your body really does make a difference."
SR2H member Cindy Kendall brings in a home-cooked meal to supplement her discussions on nutrition for her Fresh Conversations class with residents in the Jefferson Towers in Muskegon, Michigan.
Kendall leads a weekly discussion with Jefferson Towers residents adapted from Fresh Conversations, a SNAP-Ed nutrition education program designed to address the special needs of older adults. Kendall uses the Fresh Conversations newsletter as a tool to focus discussions on current nutrition and health topics, food shopping skills, how to incorporate healthy foods into one’s daily diet, and to offer participants seasonally-relevant activities so they can be physically active year round.
In her Fresh Conversations classes, Kendall says she prompts discussions about healthy eating rather than lecturing on the topic. She explains, “the participants love to learn tips they can use in their daily lives. One tip that became a big hit was preserving herbs by freezing them in an ice cube tray, either filled with water or broth.”
An SR2H member attends an MLK Day of Service event.
Because Kendall has a passion for cooking, she likes to use her meals as an example of ways Jefferson Tower seniors can modify the healthy eating lessons to fit their own lives. Recently, she prepared a vegetarian lasagna for the group to show how they can easily alter a recipe to incorporate more vegetables into their diets. Kendall also shares recipes with the residents, many of which come from another MFF SNAP-Ed program, Michigan Harvest of the Month™.
"I like to lead discussions about different things they might be interested in – it's more of an opportunity to exchange ideas and information," Kendall says.
Joining AmeriCorps has also allowed Kendall to continue supporting her former full-time employer, Community enCompass, a local nonprofit, in a flexible, part-time capacity as a SR2H member due to AmeriCorps' partnership with Community enCompass.
Connecting communities during a pandemic
During Michigan's shelter-in-place order, Jefferson Towers residents were unable to see outside family and friends or continue their usual social activities. Now that the stay-home order has been lifted, Kendall says the Fresh Conversations class has been a way for residents to reconnect with each other safely during an isolating time, especially as many residents live alone. The classes are conducted in small, socially-distanced, masked groups.
"It absolutely has been a way for residents to connect with one another since the building was closed to the public during the shelter-in-place order," Kendall says.
The pandemic has also affected how the community connects to the SR2H programs. Another SR2H member, Lisa Lewis, also had to pivot her plans for the Wyoming, Mich., community just about a month after she began the program in partnership with United Church Outreach Ministry (UCOM).
"We were working on a program for farmers markets, Fresh Conversations in a senior living complex, and getting together a walking club," Lewis says. "Due to COVID, we weren’t able to do any of that."
One SR2H component that Lewis was able to adjust to a socially-distanced format was Health Through Literacy, an MFF SNAP-Ed activity. Typically held at a local library, this activity features reading sessions for children and their caregivers using books about healthy eating and physical activity. Unable to meet in the local library, Lewis followed the lead from MFF's Online Learning in a SNAP video learning platform, which was created in response to the pandemic. With videos by MFF staff and statewide SNAP-Ed partners, the platform provides programming to communities through video instruction. Lewis was able to quickly transition and offer a virtual story time where children and caregivers are able to tune in on the UCOM Facebook page to listen to new stories and learn how they can make healthy choices.
By reaching out in the community, Lewis says the book readings have featured police officers, public figures, and other community members, adding to its success. They've also been able to offer some stories read in Spanish. Lewis hopes the families who tune in find value in learning more about nutrition and active lifestyles.
"I just want people to think about their choices and maybe comment on the video," Lewis says. "We're trying to spark questions and get people to think differently about fruits and vegetables."
Expanding the program
MacKenzie says she's proud that so many SR2H members have been able to find avenues to connect with their communities throughout the pandemic. Post-pandemic, she's looking forward to expanding outreach with local organizations in areas where members are based to strengthen program support.
MacKenzie says she plans to grow SR2H programs that focus on food shopping skills, such as delivering the MFF SNAP-Ed Farmers Market Food Navigator program, which encourages people to shop local at their farmers market and helps shoppers build confidence in selecting produce.
"We've had our members get involved and start to reach out to farmers markets to offer the Food Navigator program," MacKenzie says. "I've learned a lot about how our SNAP-Ed partners are approaching markets, so we can make the program thrive if we grow and continue that work."
Until then, SR2H members like Kendall and Lewis will continue to promote healthy living in their communities – even if it has to be virtual or from a safe distance.
In the wake of COVID-19, Lewis says it's more important than ever to take care of our health.
"I think talking about making healthy choices is important, especially now," Lewis says. "Even though we've been asked to avoid large public gatherings, we can still do things in smaller settings that are healthy and active."