Trinity supercharges efforts to get people moving, eating healthier in vulnerable communities

May 1, 2018


With financial support and encouragement from Trinity Health, some grassroots coalitions are transforming their communities into healthier, happier places to live.

In Springfield, Mass., a 62,000-square-foot manufacturing plant is being refurbished into a Culinary and Nutrition Center that ultimately will process, prepare and deliver fresh food to feed 30,000 local schoolchildren and train culinary students.

In Maywood, Ill., where elementary schools are hard-pressed to afford playground equipment, kids are playing hopscotch and other active games using colorful game templates painted on the blacktop in schoolyards. High school students are learning skills and preparing to compete for jobs in the green economy by managing an urban garden.

Coalitions of community organizations in both cities have received funding from Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health through its Transforming Communities Initiative, which the system launched in February 2016. Under the grants, local coalitions in eight communities around the U.S. will receive up to $500,000 a piece per year for five years to help fund programs that promote healthy behaviors.

"We are really happy to see how the TCI has helped participating communities to think bigger and bolder," said Jaime Dircksen, director of Trinity Health's Community Health Institute. The grant initiative, she added, is "improving health and wellness at the same time as it is increasing the pace and reach of policy, systems and environmental change."

Health professionals and program administrators say the funding is accelerating programs in progress. Here are two of their stories.

Improving school lunches
Though it is in farm country, Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts.

Partners implementing the Trinity Health grant there include Trinity's Mercy Medical Center and Live Well Springfield, a community-based coalition comprised of more than 30 organizations working to improve residents' health. In addition to providing the Transforming Communities grant to do just that, Trinity is negotiating to guarantee a low-interest loan to the Springfield Public Schools to help finance the new Culinary and Nutrition Center.

Doreen Fadus, regional executive director of Community Health and Well Being at Mercy Medical Center, said the idea for the center came from Mercy Medical Center's relationship with Sodexo, the public schools' food service provider, and the Springfield public schools.

Contractors started work in December on the $21 million center, which is scheduled for completion this September. The center will include a production and catering kitchen, a cutting and processing room, a training and test kitchen, cold and dry food storage, and a bakery. Food will be transported directly from the center to schools.

Currently, much of the food served in Springfield's public schools is processed in Rhode Island and shipped from there. Margarite "Maggie" Whitten, program director for the Transforming Communities Initiative in Springfield, said, "With the center, we'll be emphasizing fresh produce from local farmers and scratch cooking, and that will improve the nutritional levels of the food for the schoolchildren."

The center also will provide 60 jobs, and ultimately culinary students will train there as well. "As the training project develops, people within our health care system may do some work there. This is not just a financial agreement, but a long-term relationship," Fadus said. "We also hope it will serve as a model for other cities. The center is all part of a larger plan."

Activity up, conflict down
In Maywood, an economically challenged western suburb of Chicago, four of the seven elementary schools now have game boards stenciled on their blacktop to encourage active play. And exercise has changed the playground dynamic for the better.

"Jennifer Jackson, an assistant principal at Garfield Elementary School, gave me a big hug and said she has seen a reduction of conflicts — and she told me just how awesome and wonderful that is," said Shanika L. Blanton, program manager for Proviso Partners for Health, the coalition that received the Transforming Communities Initiative grant. Proviso is the northern Illinois township that includes Maywood.

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A game board stenciled on the asphalt at an elementary school in Maywood, Ill., invites active play at recess. The schoolyard game is part of a much broader health initiative by Proviso Partners for Health that is supported in part by a Transforming Communities Initiative grant from Trinity Health.

Proviso Partners is comprised of the Loyola University Health System, part of Trinity; Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine and Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing; and some 25 schools and day care centers, social service organizations, businesses and government agencies. "The driving force behind what we're doing is health equity and economic opportunity," Blanton said.

Proviso Partners has six hubs, or areas of focus. Elementary school wellness and food justice are two of them. The active recess program, part of the first, targets childhood obesity, one of the priorities for the Transforming Communities Initiative. It is led by Ann Andreoni, an assistant professor at Loyola University, and Sue Flanagan, a retired administrator with the elementary school district serving Maywood.

"There just wasn't much for them to do in the schoolyard," Blanton said of the schoolchildren. "Physical education teachers — coordinated by the very dedicated Jason Denk at Garfield Elementary School — plus administrators, students and parents all looked at this, and one teacher recommended the stencils."

Parents painted the asphalt for the schoolyard games, including hopscotch and foursquare. Physical education teachers taught students the rules of the games and also provided beanbags, balls and instructions for other activities. Through the Trinity grant, external evaluators prepared baseline assessments on schoolyard activity levels before the stencils were in place, Blanton noted, and will remeasure activity levels in the coming months.

Job training in the garden
Proviso's food justice hub is educating students and providing job training in sustainable agriculture through the Giving Garden, which is located across the street from Proviso East High School, one of three high schools in the Proviso Township.

"In garden beds, containers and hoop houses, we're growing produce and we're also providing a paid summer internship program for students to learn urban agriculture and business skills that may lead to jobs," Blanton said. "Other students take part to earn service learning hours, which they need to graduate."

The organic garden has been in place for three years and has reaped several hundred pounds of vegetables. Much of the produce has been donated to local food pantries, a support group for victims of domestic violence and a community center.

Last summer for the first time, students sold some of the produce, which includes tomatoes, peppers, green beans, onions, okra, potatoes, lettuce, carrots and herbs. Using food they grew and tended, students also participated in cooking demonstrations organized by local chefs and other volunteers.

Christopher Epps, an urban farmer and agricultural consultant paid through the Transforming Communities Initiative grant, works with the students and their teachers. He also helps students network with other urban farmers. His ultimate goal is to make the township a sustainable food hub and change how residents relate to the food they eat.

Blanton emphasized how grateful the coalition is for the Trinity grant. "It has allowed us to take our commitment and our ideas for community transformation to the next level and to create more momentum for people to move forward in ways we didn't think were possible," she said.

"Sometimes, you just have to plant a seed and see what may grow."


Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.