Time To Take Action

By Molly Soeby

The mission of the Grand Forks Park District (GFPD) in North Dakota is to provide the best parks, programs, facilities, forestry services, and other services possible to promote a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle for all its citizens. After determining that the concession stands were part ofthe mission statement, the GFPD knew something needed to be done.

A Group Effort
In 2010, I, as the Park Board Commissioner, and North Dakota State University, Grand Forks County, Extension Agent, was awarded a $40,000 ACHIEVE Healthier Communities grant for the district. Nine additional community leaders were recruited to participate in identifying health-improvement initiatives. This group adopted the name “Take Action” and included a city council member, who was also a state senator, a member of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Organization, the CEO of the YMCA, a member of the Grand Forks Public School District, a local grant writer, the executive director of the park district, a retired coach and teacher, a dietitian from the Public Health Department, and the coordinator of the University of North Dakota’s Work Well employee-wellness program.

“Take Action” identified five initiatives that would positively impact the health of local citizens. Each initiative identified different “Take Action” members and community partners. Work focused on policy, system, and environmental change.

Initiatives chosen included:

1.       Tobacco-free parks. An ordinance was passed in 2015 to make all parks and park facilities tobacco-free. (The adult softball field and the golf courses still allow chewing tobacco. The initiative continues to address that issue).

2.       Children’s gardens at park district warming houses. Studies show that, if children grow gardens, they are more likely to eat produce. The park district now plants “pallet gardens” at sites used for children’s summer programs. North Dakota State University Extension Service staff members teach these classes about produce and gardening.

3.       Electronic Benefits Transactions (EBT) for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants at the local farmer’s market. In 2014, EBT machines became available at our Town Square Farmer’s Market. I wrote three additional grants through Grand Forks County Extension to support this initiative. The market is now able to take SNAP, credit, and debit cards. The ability for the lowest-income residents to buy fresh, locally grown produce at the market has been a welcome change. 

4.       Working with and recognizing local restaurants (not national food chains) that offer at least two healthy options on menus. This is a work in progress, and our public-health partners are leading this initiative.

5.       Offering healthy options at park district concession stands at the hockey arenas and pools. In 2011, no healthy items were available at the concession stands, except water. This article focuses on the ongoing progress to provide healthy options. 

Sobering Statistics
According to America’s Health Rankings, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Obesity affects 1 in 6 children and adolescents, and contributes to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, and poor general health. Among obese children, 70 percent have at least one cardiovascular-disease risk factor, and 39 percent have two or more. Obese children are at increased risk of health problems, such as bone or joint problems, sleep apnea, psychosocial abnormalities, cardiovascular abnormalities, inflammation, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The direct economic costs of childhood obesity are estimated to be $14.2 billion annually, which includes inpatient and outpatient visits and annual prescription drug costs. Obese children who are able to maintain healthy weights as adults spend an additional $19,000 in medical costs over their lifetime, directly related to childhood obesity. (1)

North Dakota has an adult obesity rate of 32.2 percent (ranked 9th worst in the country) (2) and a child obesity rate of 13.5 percent.(3) Some families eat at our concession stands as many as four nights per week. The fact that the park district did not offer healthy options did not reflect its mission statement. Take Action worked with the district to address this problem. Over a two-year period, educational events were held with park commissioners, Beth Bouley, who is the park district’s concessionaire, and local coalitions. At these events, state and local data were presented that showed alarming increases in rates of obesity of the state’s children and adolescents. Since our programs cater largely to children, we felt an urgent responsibility to make the right choice the easy choice, and offer some healthier food options.


Starting Small
The first change was a switch from trans-fat oil for popcorn to canola oil. There was no drop in revenue on popcorn sales. We swapped white buns for wheat buns (that did not work!). We eliminated deep-fried chips and chose baked chips and Sun Chips, with no complaints. We offered fruit cups, yogurt, Nutri-Grain bars, and string cheese. Sales have steadily increased on these items over the years. We no longer offer oversized candy bars. Water was the beverage of choice for most patrons prior to the changes, and sales continue to increase annually, while soda sales have decreased. The popular “walking taco” is now served with beans, which increases the nutritional value.

In 2015, Mandy Burbank, a dietician with the Grand Forks Public Health Department, received a $7,000 cancer grant to continue improving the menus with the park district, a process that had begun in 2012. Burbank developed a survey that was sent to all hockey parents and the Border Blades (figure-skating club) parents. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of more healthy options. With that information in hand, the district shaped a plan for the fall 2016 hockey season. The district agreed to update the concession stands to be more appealing and to introduce more changes. New electronic-menu boards have been installed at the two busiest hockey arenas.

We are in the process of standardizing menus and will post calorie counts for each item. Subtle changes continue, including replacing regular applesauce with unsweetened applesauce, which contains half the sugar and nearly half the calories. Bouley has decreased the number of candy choices sold to 11—five choices are below 150 calories.

Better Bites
In a new marketing plan drafted by the park district, healthy choices will have a new logo, Better Bites. The tagline will read “Snack Strong—Play Your Best Game.” Posters, stickers, and coupons will be printed to promote the Better Bites options.

 Aprons with the park district and the Better Bites logos will be ordered for all concession staff.  “Meal Deals” will include:

·         An entrée, fruit, and milk or water

·         An apple and a cheese stick

·         A hot dog, fruit, and water or milk

·         A walking taco, fruit, and water or milk

Fruit offerings will include clementines, applesauce, apples, and bananas.

Behavioral marketing strategies will be used for promotion, such as “X-ray” carrots and the “Gretzky Special.”

Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program studies prove that naming vegetables and displaying the names increased selection of vegetables from between 40 percent and 70 percent. (4) Other changes to improve what patrons order will be moving the candy to the ends of the counter, purchasing fruit chutes that will dispense apples and oranges and placing them in the center of the counter so they are the first item seen. (4)  Concession staff will be trained to ask patrons, “Would you like an apple, banana, or an orange with your order today?” To decrease waste on perishable foods (fruits and vegetables) and increase revenue, a “special” on these items with discounted prices will be offered during the last hour of a game. Professional photos of local high school hockey players, both men and women, promoting the fruits and veggies will be enlarged and posted at the arenas with the Better Bites logo, “Snack Strong—Play Your Best Game” on the poster.

All food-item sales will be tracked and surveys will be sent in fall 2016 and spring 2017 for pre- and post-data as we continue to move to Better Bites!

Molly J. Soeby is a Grand Forks Park Board Commissioner as well as a Parent Educator/ Family Consumer Science Agent for NDSU Grand Forks County Extension. Reach her at Molly.soeby@ndsu.edu.


1. America’s Health Rankings, United Health Foundation. The Obesity Bridge, The Skinny on Obesity—Youth and Adult. Retrieved April 8, 2016 from http://www.americashealthrankings.org/Stories/story/TheObesityBridge.

2. A project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The STATE of OBESITY, Better Policies for a Healthier America. Adult Obesity in the United States.  Retrieved April 8, 2016 from http://stateofobesity.org/adult-obesity/.

3. A project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The STATE of OBESITY, Better Policies for a Healthier America. Obesity Rates & Trends. Retrieved April 8, 2016 from http://stateofobesity.org/rates/.

4. Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program. The Smarter Lunchroom Movement. Retrieved April 9, 2016 from http://smarterlunchrooms.org/ideas.