A passionate crowd of nearly 250 health advocates lined up early Thursday morning to rally around a grassroots effort aimed at improving health in Wyandotte County.
"There's nothing that's going to be successful that doesn't include collaboration," said KCK Mayor/CEO Mark Holland during his opening remarks. "It's been unbelievable to see the number of partners that have come together and how richly this message has resonated in our community and around the metropolitan area."
A group of elected officials, dedicated residents and community leaders from education, business, health and government organizations filled the Multipurpose Conference room at the Kansas City, Kansas Community College Technical Education Center to kick-off the Mayor's Food Summit. The Summit, sponsored by the Wyandotte Health Foundation, is a joint initiative of Mayor Holland and the Healthy Communities Wyandotte Coalition.
"It was a great success and the turnout was much higher than anyone had envisioned," said President/CEO of the Wyandotte Health Foundation, Bill Epperheimer. "Our mission statement includes the word collaboration and I'm getting more optimistic all the time."
The planning for this major event was set in motion nearly 5-years ago following a health ranking report by the Kansas Health Institute that ranked Wyandotte County last in the state. Since the initial report by KHI in 2009, HCW has been spearheading a county-wide coalition aimed to help Wyandotte become the most improved county for health in the state of Kansas through innovative leadership and community participation. The results of those efforts were evident in the attendance seen at the event.
"That turnout tells me that we hit a nerve, a community need that cuts across dividing lines. Not only did leaders walk away excited, they were equipped with ideas for making healthy food more available in their sphere of influence," says Wesley McKain, one of the key organizers of the Summit and program coordinator for Healthy Communities Wyandotte.
"Wyandotte County has developed a remarkable ability to come together to work on important issues, says David Smith, Chief of Staff for the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools . "The energy in the room holds great promise for making meaningful progress in insuring that our students, families and community members have access to healthy, nutritious foods. We look forward to working together to make this happen."
Holland and members of the HCW Planning Committee reviewed and analyzed data associated with behavioral risk factors as it relates to the consumption and access of healthy foods in Wyandotte County. Based on the data, the HCW planning committee identified four categories that focused on the area of nutrition.
- Nutritious Food in Schools
- Ensuring Healthy Food Access for Low-Income Households
- Transforming Organizational Culture for Health
- Increasing Physical Access to Healthy Food in Wyandotte County
The nutritional categories were then used to form four breakout session that featured speakers, facilitators and panelists from community organizations.
"The four breakout sessions were highlighted by vigorous participation from those in attendance," said Joe Conner, Interim Assistant County Administrator and the former director of the Wyandotte County Public Health Department and former organizer of the Health Communities Wyandotte coalition.
Elnora Jefferson, a KCK resident and an active urban farmer since the late 90s, participated in the breakout session on Nutritious Food in Schools.
"I thought the panelist was very well prepared, very experienced, and were ready for questions and answered them," says KCK resident, Elnora Jefferson. "I got a sense out of the breakout session of where we were and what would be needed to go further. I also got a sense of the obstacles as well as the benefits."
"People really do care and are interested in this issue of healthy food access," says Marlon Goff, a participant at the Food Summit. "However, many challenges remain particularly surrounding the cultural norms associated with eating habits, priorities, choices, preparation methods and portion sizes."
Goff's statement is a valid one when you look at the most recent report from KHI, which still lists Wyandotte last in the state when it comes to health behaviors.
So how do you influence people to change their eating habits?
All of the strategies selected for the Food Summit are specifically aimed to tackle the question and the various challenges that hinder access to healthier food options. This can be done through a long-term approach to changing our community health statistics, which is currently being done through policies, programs, and outreach.
Access to healthy food and changing behavior is only one aspect of challenges the county faces when it comes improving health across the board. There are many other variables that also need to be taken into consideration.
This is why Mayor Holland unveiled his plan for a healthy campus during his "State of the Government" address earlier this year. The healthy campus is part of the Mayor's Healthy Communities Initiative, which will be located in the heart of downtown KCK.
"We want to set a national model for a healthy campus in Kansas City, Kansas. My belief is, if you can move the needle on healthy living in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, you can move the needle anywhere in the country and we're going to be a national model for that as well."
The estimated $30 million economic development project will be anchored by a proposed new community center, grocery store and walking and bike trails. The project includes partnership with the YMCA and other various local community organizations.
"Access to healthy infrastructure, trails, sidewalks and bike paths are the kinds of things our community needs," said Holland. "I have committed to opening our levies for hiking and biking on our trails and I'm very excited about Healthy Communities Wyandotte in making that happen."
"As you begin to watch, listen and learn about what's happening with the health of America and the health of our cities and communities the timing is absolutely perfect," says David Byrd, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City.
Holland has scheduled a Town Hall meeting to be held at City Hall on May 8th at 5:30 p.m. to share the concept of the Healthy Campus and to get feedback from the community on how they envisioned the project.
In addition to providing a healthier infrastructure, Holland expressed issues surrounding the availability of affordable health care for residents.
"Wyandotte County makes up five percent of state's population, but is ten percent of the state's uninsured. The Affordable Care Act has the power to cut that number in half and the expansion of Medicaid would cut that in half again," says Holland.
Kansas passed a law aimed at letting the state to opt out of the Affordable Care Act, but before that happens it would have to be approved by congress. Holland's passion to provide easier access to affordable health care for low-income residents in his community has been noticed by federal officials in the nation's capital.
Immediately following the kick-off of his Food Summit, Holland boarded a plane to attend a special reception at the White House to recognize local communities that went above and beyond in the enrollment of the Affordable Care Act. There are four states in The Department of Health and Human Services Region 7; Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Kansas City, Kansas and St. Louis, Missouri were the only two communities in this region that were recognized for their local efforts.
"Access to health care is fundamental to health outcomes. Access to health care is critical to our community and we're going to continue to push that forward."
"So as we stand before you here today we want to make sure you hear our commitment a great cross grade of the Kansas City community, but specifically Wyandotte County," says Byrd. "We know that health can be impacted like never before."
"As the information from the summit is analyzed, there will be more specific action items identified to improve access and information about healthy food in Wyandotte County, says Connor.
When Jefferson started her first garden, she began with a pitch fork. She says she never imagined she would fall in love with growing food at that time.
"Food is just one element to the rankings and just one element where we can concern ourselves with health," says Jefferson. "The food summit is just what it is... it is the summit on food and access to food, but there are some other dimensions that must be looked at as far as improvement of health rankings. I see that has a finger on the hand that is needed to raise that ranking, but we're on the right track."
The Food Summit featured remarks from a national leader in sustainable agriculture and food systems, and author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, Dr. Oran Hesterman and Dr. Judd Allen, President of the Human Resources Institute and a national expert on creating supportive cultures for healthy living.
"This is a growing movement! I'm pleased that Healthy Communities Wyandotte can help lead the way, and I can guarantee you the work won't stop here," Says McKain. "There are too many passionate, committed people involved for this to be a one-time event. Look for good things to come."