Traverse City Area Public Schools becoming a healthier place to learn

Like other tourism-based communities across Northern Michigan, the Traverse City region is known for its bountiful farms, orchards, trails, and recreational opportunities; assets not typically associated with food insecurity or a lack of opportunities for physical activity. Yet many residents struggle with hunger and access to places where they can be active.
Students make sweet potato stamps in a TCAPS SNAP-Ed program.
For nearly two decades, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) has delivered SNAP-Ed programming in area schools to encourage students and families to eat more fruits and vegetables and engage in more physical activity. The district also continues to drive its SNAP-Ed policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work in schools and the broader community to inspire initiatives that create healthy local places.

This work is supported in part by 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). 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.

"We really have two worlds in Traverse," says Patti Tibaldi, TCAPS grant writer and program lead for their SNAP-Ed programming. "People think of it as a foodie town, which it is. We have tremendous wealth on the water. But we also have a lot of rural poverty."

With many area residents working seasonal jobs and living in a region that relies on seasonal businesses and tourism for six months a year, there are real income and access disparities.  Especially in the more rural areas where people eat food purchased from gas stations and are unable to access the local recreational amenities, TCAPS is successfully using evidence-based SNAP-Ed programming in a variety of ways that educate and encourage people to eat healthy and move more.

In the classroom

TCAPS SNAP-Ed instructor Whitney Daily teaches the Grow It, Try It, Like It! program to preschoolers in the district. The garden-themed nutrition education program introduces children to fruits and vegetables with activities based on an imaginary garden at Tasty Acres Farm. She also extends their learnings by sharing recipes via a newsletter that is sent home to her students’ families after the classroom sessions.

TCAPS students participate in a Grow It, Try It, Like It! lesson on strawberries.
"The best part is hearing the little ones share how they are making healthy choices and their excitement for trying something new," Daily says. "One time, I came into the classroom and a little girl said to me, 'Miss Whitney! Miss Whitney! I had an apple for breakfast!' She was really excited to tell me that she was making that healthy choice. Seeing a child branch out and be brave is always fun."

Daily and her colleague, TCAPS SNAP-Ed instructor Brooke Juday, teach the Physical Education and Nutrition Working Together (PE-Nut™) program to elementary school students. PE-Nut™ is a nutrition and physical education program that uses a whole-school approach to motivate students and their families to eat healthier and be physically active.

"The lessons we teach introduce simple concepts like eating from the food groups, eating a rainbow, and choosing healthy snacks. We reinforce these concepts with healthy recipes. It is definitely their favorite part of lessons," Juday says. "The students always want to know what food I have with me. It is fun to watch them try something new and really like it. Many students tell me they didn't think they would like the snack but tried it and loved it. I really love hearing this from my fourth- and fifth-graders — they can be the toughest critics."

Every PE-Nut™ student received a Healthy Snacks cookbook last year to reinforce their learnings and extend what they learned in the classroom at home. One second-grade student was proud to tell Juday that after he took his cookbook home, he and his mom made three recipes from it.

"It made me realize the information is doing more than making it home," Juday says. "There are families making healthy choices with the information we provide."

Beyond the classroom

The Storywalk® at Blair Elementary in Traverse City.TCAPS is initiating even bigger changes beyond the classroom through their approach to their SNAP-Ed PSE work. In response to a SNAP-Ed community exploration, people in Blair Township said that they didn't have access to trails and other opportunities for physical activity. From this, discussions began with other community stakeholders. The idea was born to create a trail adjacent to Blair Elementary School. The project was then spearheaded by Blair Township with support from TCAPS, the Oleson Family, TART Trails, and the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. The concept for the Blair Township Trail was created and became part of the Blair Township Master Plan. Property was donated by TCAPS and the Oleson family and construction is slated to begin in 2022. This community effort demonstrates how SNAP-Ed PSE work can spark ideas that not only inspire actions for community change but converts them into reality.

"They don't have sidewalks out there," Tibaldi says. "That's why the trail is a great example of tapping into community partners and what really can be accomplished."
Students enjoy the Storywalk® at Traverse Heights Elementary School in Traverse City.
Another SNAP-Ed project inspiring physical activity is the Storywalk® at Traverse Heights Elementary School. The installation temporarily transformed an outdoor walking path into a walkable book. Pages from "I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato" were enlarged, printed on durable material, and placed along a path so kids could exercise their bodies along with their reading skills. While this was a temporary installation, it is a way for TCAPS to show how healthy messages can be integrated into the community and build momentum for community change work.

"It made so much sense," Tibaldi says.

TCAPS' SNAP-Ed work has also raised awareness of the importance of healthy foods and physical activity to children's health and academic performance. This awareness is creating systems change. With grant support from the Rotary Club of Traverse City, TCAPS was able to hire a district wellness coordinator.

"I grew up in Detroit in a big family. We played in the street. We played in the fields. We climbed trees," Tibaldi says. "I said to the kids one day, 'Where are you when I drive home? I go by the park, and I don't see you there.' They told me, 'We go home. We go inside.' And what do they do? They get on a computer, or they get on a screen."

She is confident the new wellness director will initiate programs and projects to get kids more active, in and after school.

"It's a sign that the district is recognizing that healthier kids are better learners. We gathered a lot of data from the district, and came up with recommendations for what we could do," Tibaldi says. "Now, we have this push within our district to have whole health and wellness. It makes me so happy."

Tibaldi and her team serve their community in a significant yet understated way. They successfully deliver effective in-school programming and implement meaningful community changes that support healthy behaviors, which can take years to come to fruition. TCAPS' work exemplifies how SNAP-Ed contributes to creating a community of health that will benefit families today and the generations to come.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.