By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

Grace Peterson, a nutrition agent with LSU’s AgCenter, has been on a mission – to teach kids that a plate of vegetables can be every bit as tasty as a bag of french fries.

Perhaps she was a little overly ambitious…

But 4 years later, her collection of kids, drawn from Shreveport’s lower income communities, have gone from calling anything leafy and green “nasty,” to this…

“I was in our community garden recently and I literally watched one of our kids pick a green bean straight off the plant, raw, and eat it,” Grace said. “I watched our kids rinse off squash and zucchini, put them on a plate with a little dressing, and eat it… Amazing the change. But we’ve been here long enough now that we’ve changed the culture of the community. And we’ve changed the eating habits of these kids.”

Now, thanks to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation’s ground-breaking grant project, and matching funds from supporting community organizations, Grace’s program will get a $1.4 million boost to spread her work even further, opening 8 more community garden learning centers throughout Shreveport (offering gardens, cooking centers, outdoor activities, and nutrition education classes).

And that’s just the start.

Blue Cross Foundation’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana has begun fulfilling a multi-million dollar pledge to promote healthy living programs throughout the state.

“This really is a first of its kind program for Louisiana,” said Christy Reeves, executive director for the foundation. “Nothing this large in scope has been done in Louisiana, involving so much money and so many organizations, all teaming up for one purpose — to improve nutrition, fitness and health education in our state.”

BCBSLAF started earlier this year, challenging community leaders to develop projects for their schools, neighborhoods and non-profit organizations – with a commitment to match, in funds and man power, any grant dollars.

The response was tremendous, with 49 applicants across Louisiana.

Last month, the foundation proudly named 12 programs that will be awarded $10.2 million in grants. And because those winning programs pledged $16.8 million in matching funds, $27 million has now been earmarked for projects aimed at slashing some of Louisiana’s most looming health problems, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The projects – stretching from New Orleans, Central Louisiana, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, New Iberia, Monroe, LaSalle and Lafayette – must be completed within 3 years.

Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the internationally renowned nutritional research center dedicated to finding cures for chronic diseases, has partnered with the Blue Cross Foundation to oversee implementation of each project.

“We all have to work together to create resources and opportunities to be healthier and live more active lives,” said Jessica Erwin, director of programs and events for Pennington.

Check this site frequently for feature stories and blog updates highlighting individual projects and the people making them happen.