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Healthy Behaviors Program Grants help make communities healthier
Tammy Moreau
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Healthy Behaviors Program Grants help make communities healthier

Cenla residents have more opportunities to make healthy choices

The Rapides Foundation in 2014 began offering a grant opportunity designed to help communities develop, implement and enhance projects that focus on healthy eating, active living or prevention of tobacco use, substance or alcohol abuse. Since then, the Foundation has funded 11 multi-year Healthy Behaviors Program Grants that have the ultimate goal of giving residents more opportunities to make healthy choices. 


Grant funds are being used for a wide variety of regional projects, including improved parks and outdoor fitness equipment, mobile playgrounds and farmers markets, healthy food distribution programs, community gardens, and alcohol and substance abuse prevention programs. Grants were funded up to $300,000 for over a three-year period.


Many of the grants are helping communities build upon existing projects to improve health. Several Central Louisiana towns are using funds to make improvements at existing farmers markets, for example, which is increasing visits to markets and ultimately giving people better access to fresh fruits and vegetables.


The grants are part of the Foundation’s Healthy Behaviors Initiative, which addresses prevention of tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and alcohol and substance abuse prevention. The initiative recognizes that poor diet, physical inactivity and the use of tobacco are health behaviors directly linked to premature death and disability from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Illicit drug use and alcohol consumption are also associated with injury, death and disability. 


“Changing health behaviors is essential to improving the health of a community, and we know that this work takes a long time, sometime generations,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation. “This is one reason why our Healthy Behaviors Initiative consists of a multi-level, integrated, comprehensive approach that has projects in schools, workplaces and entire communities.”


LaSalle Economic Development District


The Healthy Behaviors Program Grant to the LaSalle Economic Development District funds the Healthy Places LaSalle Project – a parish-wide effort to reduce obesity by shifting the cultural norm toward healthier lifestyle choices, including healthier eating, better life choices and safer active living opportunities.


Grant funds have been used to improve existing parks and farmers markets, put healthier food items in school canteens and ballparks, educate kids about healthy living and persuade local governments to approve ordinances that make all outdoor public places in LaSalle Parish smoke-free.

“We do not have Parks and Recreation departments in our towns. We’re just not big enough to do that. So it’s funders like The Rapides Foundation that allow us to provide a lot of these additional resources for our residents,” said Cynthia Cockerham, Executive Director of Community Development for the LaSalle Economic Development District. 

Cynthia Cockerham, LEDD's Executive Director of Community Development, stands next to one of the many signs designating LaSalle Parish public places as smoke-free.


“A lot of the work started with installation of additional infrastructure at our public parks,” Cockerham said. This included installing playground equipment and park lighting so that families can use the parks in a safe, friendly environment. In addition, grant money was used to add benches, shade structures and picnic tables near farmers markets and walking and bicycle trails.


“It’s important to us that we continue to expand public parks. We want to promote them as a local gathering place. The projects we’ve been able to do in those parks really gives people a place to go and gather, and at the same time enjoy outdoor spaces and nature and have opportunities for recreation, whether you are a 3-year-old on playground equipment or walking the trails as a grandmother with that child. Those are some of the things we work toward.”


In Jena, grant funds were used to purchase outdoor fitness equipment in the town park’s walking loop. “So community residents can not only get in our parks to walk for exercise, they can also do some weight-bearing exercises on a regular basis during park hours,” Cockerham said. “We are trying to make not only infrastructural and environmental changes, but we want to see the culture of our community change as we become more walkable. We want to see gradual change and have healthier people.”


In the area of healthy eating, Healthy Places LaSalle leads the Healthy Concessions Project, which persuades schools and ballparks to offer healthier and more nutrient-dense concession items. As a result, kids have the option of purchasing items like string cheese, frozen yogurt sticks, fresh fruit and water. Grant money is being used to help schools pay for the sometimes higher-priced healthy items, and to purchase additional cooler space to store some of the items, Cockerham said.


Healthy Behaviors Program Grant money also funded the 2017 Summer Day Camp in the Park, a free, eight-session day camp held at six different parks. The 154 children who attended learned about healthy eating, physical activity, smoke-free living and drug-free education, all in an outdoor setting. Certified teachers led the activities, which included yoga, a cumulative marathon and food art. 


“That was one of the greatest things as far as educational outreach that we ever could have dreamed about doing,” Cockerham said. “We wanted those kids to be outside with no technology, and we pulled that off. It was highly successful.” 


In the area of tobacco-free living, Healthy Places LaSalle in 2017 successfully persuaded municipalities and the Police Jury to designate all public parks and outdoor spaces as smoke-free spaces. Grant money was then used to create signage to let the public know they can enjoy outdoor smoke-free areas.


Cockerham said LEDD leads the Healthy Places LaSalle effort because of the correlation between a healthy community and economic development. “LaSalle Economic Development District made a decision about eight years ago that in order to foster economic development to a higher level, that there was work needed in community development. They are very aware of the links between good public schools, healthy people, healthy communities, healthy worksites, healthy employers and how all of that comes together to create a product that makes potential investors look at us as a place to locate. We’re trying to prepare our community to be better positioned when investors look our way, and of course we also want our people to be healthy because all of that ties together to have a better prepared workforce.”


City of Natchitoches


Healthy Behaviors Program Grant funding has enabled the City of Natchitoches to expand its existing farmers market, bring healthy food and activities directly to people through a mobile farmers market and portable playground, and create the Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council to work on long-term solutions for the health of Natchitoches residents. Staff members were hired to coordinate these efforts, and the city is able to spread the word through its Ready, Set, Go website, all funded through the grant.


Dallas Russell, Community Programs and Outreach Coordinator for the City of Natchitoches, credits the grant with boosting projects and programs that support the city’s efforts to improve the health and wellness of its residents.


“This grant was really critical to creating more awareness of health and wellness and providing opportunities for us,” she said. “It is an important element that allows the mayor to move forward in setting the tone for a healthy city.”

Coach DeAndrea Sanders helps Patrick Stokes with his archery skills at the Natchitoches Portable Park.


The Natchitoches Portable Park is a mobile recreation unit that makes regular stops at two local parks and visits in other parts of the city on special occasions. Similarly, the Natchitoches Mobile Market is a mobile unit filled with fresh produce that also makes stops in the city, oftentimes alongside the portable park.


The Portable Park is filled with various types of games and activities intended to get children and adults active and engaged. When the unit pulls up to Pierson & Mallet and Ben Johnson parks, it’s not uncommon to see local kids rush in to play basketball, volleyball, archery, board games and other activities led by city staff, Russell said. “At first they had a lot of traditional games, but we started buying more unique items and games. The children are drawn to those things they had never encountered before. They are really intrigued and enjoy those unique items.”


The Natchitoches Mobile Market is filled with fresh produce from the Detention Center Community Garden and local farmers. By bringing the market to communities, young people are able to taste and sample fresh fruits and vegetables, sometimes for the first time.


“They have their little bag of veggies. Some of them would bite into it and try it,” Russell said. “I can definitely say they try things they had never tried before and saw things they had never seen. That I know.”


The Natchitoches Farmers Market has grown now that the city has a full-time staff person hired under the grant. The market hosts vendors and offers programming with different themes and activities. The Saturday market has a Kids Club incentive program, funded by the Healthy Behaviors Program grant, that provides children ages 2-13 with $5 tokens they can use to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables each time they visit the market. 


The grant also funds a coordinator for the Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council, a 13-member group that meets quarterly to oversee the city’s healthy behaviors efforts. “We as a city want to act as the facilitator, as the glue, but it’s driven by those individuals and how they want to move forward. The goal is to meet the grant expectations,” Russell said.


Russell explained the grant has become a community effort. “For me, what was unexpected and pretty great was the amount of interest from the community from different organizations and people who wanted to be a part of it. The library started coming out with their bookmobile at our mobile market and portable park, and Cane River Children’s Services started sending someone out too with games for the kids and to read to the kids. So it’s created opportunities and partnerships.”


Central Louisiana AIDS Support Services 


Central Louisiana AIDS Support Services (CLASS) is using its Healthy Behaviors Program Grant funding to design and implement “balance,” a program for residents struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, people in recovery and anyone interested in learning a new way to live a more purposeful life. The program consists of free group-discussion sessions based on the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model, which uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to help participants define their values and goals.


“The balance program is being offered as an alternative to or as a supplement to other community-based cognitive behavior therapy, abstinence only, or 12-step programs,” said CLASS Executive Director Ann Lowrey. “ACT, the model on which the program is based, has shown a lot of promise as a method to help people overcome their substance abuse problems, and does it in a way that can also improve every aspect of life.”


The 90-minute sessions are currently held in multiple locations on days and at times that work best for participants. CLASS is training volunteers to become facilitators for the program, with plans to eventually offer 12 sessions every week at different times and locations to reach as many people as possible.


“We are working with professional facilitators who have experience in substance and alcohol abuse prevention to lead the groups and train members of the community in how to facilitate the groups in the future. It’s our hope that this will help make the program sustainable beyond the grant period,” she said. “The idea is to bring this program into the community and tailor the groups to the problem that people are having in their community.”


Residents can drop in on any session at any location and can continue the program as long as they like. Sessions are confidential. People interested in volunteering to be a facilitator are required to participate in the program and then co-facilitate sessions before leading the group alone.


“Everybody who has participated in the program has had positive things to say about it. They have really enjoyed it. They like the positive approach, they like the meditation that’s involved, the mindfulness practice, and the way that we tie the mindfulness practice in to the topic for the evening,” Lowrey said. The ACT model has been used all over the world and is beginning to gain momentum in the United States. “There’s a whole lot of evidence-based information that this really is an effective strategy to help overcome substance and alcohol abuse,” she said.


Food Bank of Central Louisiana


Twice a month, between 75 and 100 families at three Central Louisiana schools pull up to the school after hours to receive fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and healthy non-perishable items through the Food Bank of Central Louisiana’s School Pantry Program, funded by a three-year Healthy Behaviors Program Grant awarded in 2015.


The Food Bank started the program at Bunkie Elementary Learning Academy in September 2016, and at Natchitoches Junior High and Vernon Middle School in the spring of 2017. The program is expected to expand to at least two more Central Louisiana schools in Fall 2018.


Distributions are based on income need and family size. Each family receives a minimum of $5 of fresh produce funded under the grant, and each individual in the family receives about 10 pounds of healthy food each distribution.

Linda Hutson of the Food Bank of Central Louisiana (left) delivers food at Bunkie Elementary Learning Academy with custodian Albert Dossman and Principal Liza Jacobs.


Because the goal of the grant is to increase people’s access to healthy foods, Linda Hutson, the Food Bank’s Director of Development & Community Relations, goes through the Food Bank inventory routinely to ensure all the food for this program meets healthy requirements. Distributions differ each week, but some of the items handed out include cold smoothie drinks, frozen fish, melons and grains.


“The people who do come in are so appreciative. The families are excited to see what they get,” Hutson said. “We’re seeing some of the children excited to see some of the produce they are getting, which is sometimes surprising, but it’s a great thing.”


The Food Bank purchases the produce from the Pointe Coupee Minority Farmers Group, which often harvests either the day before or morning of a school distribution. “It’s straight from the ground and it goes straight to these families,” Hutson said.


The Food Bank selected schools based on need and whether they are in a location that lacks hunger relief programs. Families must meet federal poverty guidelines, but they can apply any time during the school year. “If they are using another food pantry in their communities, we ask them to pick one or the other,” Hutson said. Since transportation can be an issue, the Food Bank allows people to send an authorized representative to pick up the food items. Distributions are from 3:30-4:30 p.m., after school, to protect the privacy of the families.


In addition to healthy food, families receive healthy recipes to better help them prepare some of the donated items. Healthy Behaviors Program Grant money also pays for equipment schools use to store the food items.


“We have some grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, and so when you see some of their incomes I don’t think they would be able to provide some of this food for the children they are raising if it wasn’t for this program,” Hutson said.


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