By Emily DeWitt
In 2010, at a meeting of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition (TNFC), a parent shared that she had visited one of the city pools with her daughters and noticed that the only healthy item on the menu was bottled water, which cost fifty cents more than soda. She saw kids loading up on candy and fried foods, and drinking liquid cheese from dipping cups. As a member of the non-profit coalition, she wanted people to work together to do something about this. Brian Rogers, one of the directors of Lexington’s Parks and Recreation pools, who was at the meeting, heard the clarion call and responded with a resounding “Yes! We can do something about this.”
A Coalition For Change
The mission of the coalition, based in Lexington, Ky., is to make healthy eating and physical activity environments accessible to youth and their families where they live, work, and play. Organized in 2003, the coalition consists of more than 30 community members and formal partners—registered dietitians, nurses, college professors, community organizers, and fellow non-profit representatives—who work together to promote health and social change across the city. We believe that if youth are surrounded with unhealthy food environments, then that’s what they’ll choose to eat. But, if the healthy choice becomes the easy choice, then they’ll more likely make healthier choices. As people with the ability to effect change, we can shape the environments where youth in the community eat, and invest in their health. We are able to do this work through one of our programs: Better Bites.
We began with a nutritional and cost analysis of the city’s pool concession stands and created a balanced approach to revising the menus. We suggested to the skeptical procurement manager a few healthier items, like those listed in the federal healthy snack guidelines. According to Rogers, it took two years to develop a menu that fit within budget and managed to maximize the limited storage capacity at the concession locations. In 2011, the Tweens Coalition’s Better Bites program was implemented when eight healthy items, including fresh fruit, vegetables, and grilled chicken sandwiches, were added to the concession stand menu at two pool locations. Sampling and promotional days were hosted, and at the end of the summer the concession financials were nearly identical with those of previous years. The procurement manager shared her gratitude because not only had the new food options been well-received at the pool, but they had given her the opportunity to make healthier choices, too. Surveys of pool attendees were conducted with overwhelming support of the new menu as well.
In the next year, the coalition engaged youth through a naming contest for the Better Bites work, where one young woman was recognized by the mayor for her winning submission: Snack Strong. Building upon this success in the following years, the pools expanded the menu, making half of the options Better Bites choices, and added a third pool location. Coalition members engaged adults by sharing research that motivated many community members to support the work. One in three Lexington youth are considered overweight or obese, so promoting physical activity through pools is an excellent way to aid in reducing this statistic; however, if a youth swam at the pool for two hours, then ate a meal at the concession stand, he or she would have consumed more calories than had been burned by swimming. Better Bites invests in the health of the youth in our community, not by shaming or even educating them into healthy eating, but by making the healthy choice accessible and popular. Over the last six years, there has been increasing success with these efforts, as Better Bites items are averaging 33 percent of total concession stand sales. Fruit has continuously outsold chicken nuggets, and water has continued to outsell sports drinks.
Chew On This
It hasn’t been easy to achieve such success. Many long meetings were spent on development and promotion of the program. Several years of promotional efforts and continued support from coalition members has been integral in making this work possible. Nonetheless, the coalition is encouraged by the changes, and we have learned a lot along the way. For others who hope to implement similar initiatives, please consider the following:
- Start small. Small steps lead to great change.
- Build relationships with local partners who can support and champion the work.
- Reach out and ask questions to ensure changes are feasible.
- Select a few healthy options that can be added to menus and promote those first.
- Offer free samples of these healthy choices to see how they are received by patrons of all ages.
- Listen directly to community members, respond to their concerns, and follow up with them about any changes made.
Rogers sums up the community response well: “It’s extremely gratifying to see the overwhelming positive response from the public toward the program. Parents were thrilled to have healthy options and felt much better about sending their children to the concession stand with a few dollars.”
People will share their thoughts about what they like and what they are willing to buy. For example, folks at one of the pool locations wanted a healthy alternative to soda besides water. The coalition listened to this input and worked with our parks and recreation partners to find an alternative they could buy from their vendor that met the Better Bites Nutrition Guidelines. The sales for the year that the product was added reflect some success with this change. This work has required a significant time investment: however, dedication to the partnerships can lead to success for all involved. The coalition hopes this can be a framework for others hoping to do similar work, promoting change within recreational facilities, and investing in future generations’ health, one Better Bite at a time.
For more information, visit www.tweenslex.org.
Emily DeWitt is the Better Bites Coordinator for the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition. Reach her at email@example.com.