Mat Schwarzman is the executive director for New Orleans Kids Partnership, a collaborative of non-profit and government organizations offering mentorships, tutoring, after school programs, college counseling and other services to the kids of greater New Orleans. Mat is also the project director for Whole Kids Network, a new voluntary collaborative involving  37 agencies, dedicated to serving the nutritional and educational needs of low-income youth. Today, $925,000 of the more than $2.8 million in funds supporting Whole Kids Network comes from Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana (a state-wide, multi-million dollar grant program launched earlier this year by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation). Below, Schwarzman discusses how organizations working together can overcome even the most daunting community challenges, including rising childhood obesity rates. 


By Mathew Schwarzman

Mat Schwarzman, project director for Whole Kids Network and executive director for New Orleans Kids Partnership (NOKP).
Mat Schwarzman, project director for Whole Kids Network and executive director for New Orleans Kids Partnership (NOKP).

We know the scope of the problem is immense.

Research reports from around the world declare a global obesity epidemic, especially among children from low-income families.  So how can New Orleans, a city with one of the highest adolescent obesity rates in the country and perhaps the most indulgent cultural diet on the planet, lead the charge for change?

My answer is simple, surprising and perhaps a little boring:  meetings.

I know it sounds strange, but think about it for a moment:  Can’t a good meeting change the world? If the President and the Speaker of the House are able to have good meetings in Washington, DC over the next few weeks, the United States and most of the global economy will remain stable.  If a critical mass – say, 100 passionate educators, parents, philanthropists, researchers and others from your community – met and decided to focus their collective attention on establishing a “healthy habits hub” for kids in every part of your city… Couldn’t they actually make that happen?

To make fundamental changes occur, of course, what you really need are a series of good meetings, involving the same people, until a true partnership develops.

At NOKP we call this “the power of partnership,” and we have been sustaining it since 2006. We know “the power of partnership” is the single biggest source of energy we as human beings possess. The power to agree.  Not only is it a free resource, but, if left unchecked, the potency of our partnerships will even increase over time (that’s something even nuclear power can’t do).

Members of the NOKP partnership.
Members of the NOKP partnership.

It’s a side effect perfect for a “cash poor” but “people rich” town like New Orleans.

We at NOKP decided to focus our collective attention on lowering adolescent obesity about 18 months ago,  during a meeting

(naturally). After hours of discussion and debate, NOKP partner organizations came to a consensus — lowering adolescent obesity was the single most important thing we could do over the next decade to showcase New Orleans as a great place to raise healthy, successful children.

The $925,276 in cash support we are receiving from Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana, together with the $1.8 million donated by NOKP and our partner organizations, will be a “game changer” for the children of New Orleans.  Our efforts will bring 37 organizations to the same table, over the next three years,  devising activities and services for roughly 2,000 kids and their families.  All that energy devoted to a common anti-obesity focus, a common community outreach campaign and a common set of evaluation procedures.

And in the end, NOKP will establish policy changes to encourage the spread of our model to even more neighborhoods,  in 10 other areas of the city by 2018.

The challenges here in New Orleans are daunting.

Lucy Tucker, a youth leader within Kids ReThink New Orleans Schools and NOKP, speaking on a national panel about healthy schools in Washington, DC.

But when I contemplate the energy and determination this project will generate within the community, I remember that the power of partnership is addictive. The more people and organizations  that sign on, the more people and organizations will be interested in signing on, and so on and so on…

I am so looking forward to the many activities we will be sponsoring over the next three years,  increasing physical fitness and healthy eating habits. I am looking forward to all the new ways NOKP organizations will learn to improve the impact of our services.  But most of all, to be very, very honest, I am looking forward to the meetings!