Valencia’s FIT (Food Initiative Taskforce) Kids!  


 By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

A few of us from our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana team were lucky enough to recently visit Shreveport, home to our grant funded Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors wellness program. We were there to catch up on HGIO, since it officially wraps-up next month (the only two year program of our 12 Challenge Granters — the rest are three year projects). And while chatting with our various project partners about why HGIO was so desperately needed in this community, Gary Lash, chief executive officer for the Northwest Louisiana YMCA, offered these sobering words:

“When your funeral homes have to regularly stock over-sized caskets, you know you have a problem…”

So, in the fall of 2012, we awarded this community, clearly grappling with issues of obesity and related health problems, a $588,485 grant. HGIO (a coalition of nineteen wellness oriented organizations based in the Shreveport area) was charged with launching obesity reduction programs targeting kids and adults. The group offered matching funds in both dollars and services (bringing the total to $1.4 million).

High on that list of new programs? Anything touching the lives of kids, impressionable enough to instill new thinking that

HGIO Youth Corps
HGIO Youth Corps

just might last a life time. So the HGIO Youth Corps (a mentor program pairing kids 14 to 17 with kids 6 to 12) kicked-off over a year ago, with activities that included wall climbing, kayaking, ropes course challenges, biking… And we were there when the kids from ShrevCORPS helped a group of “junior chefs” create their very own dill pickles (using fresh cucumbers and spices – for recipes, see our Facebook page) during an afternoon Shreveport Mobile Market.

“We have to have a wholistic approach with our kids,” said Chris Gabriel, executive vice president of Volunteers of America North Louisiana. “And I have to say, I saw real positive changes in all the kids we worked


More kid-oriented programs included games and nutritional education information. The partnership with One Great River helped push the success of these amazing programs, which touched the lives of 337 kids last month alone, according to One Great River Executive Director J Peter Bunce.

More educational fun focused on learning gardens, run by Shreveport Green and their Executive Director Donna Curtis. The food they grow now helps supply a new Mobile Market, which they launched last month. LSU AgCenter’s Grace Peterson also worked to expand an existing program (FIT — Food Initiative Taskforce –for Kids project, based in Valencia) allowing kids to work in their own community garden — planting, nurturing, harvesting and cooking all manner of produce (including a “vegetable of the month” program that introduced kids to a new veggie, which they were forced to “at least taste” before curling their nose up at it, Peterson once told us). Funny how often those kids ended up actually liking the oddly shaped greenery goodness plopped on the plate in front of them! Her program has become so successful, Peterson’s leadership helped secure new USDA grants (totaling $675,000) and her office is working with city leaders to develop three new learning gardens at various sites.

Diana Schumberg with the LSU’s Health Sciences Center got a late start, due to a hiring freeze. But a Children’s Healthy Weight & Activity Clinic is now underway and doing well. Also on the medical front, Martin Luther King Health Center hosted a series of health screenings, on site and in the community. They’ve also partnered with St. Luke’s Mobile Medical Ministry to further expand services (and now frequently refer patients back and forth).

HGIO Project Director Paula Hickman noted that even though the Challenge Grant funded project was, indeed, winding down, the goals and programs started here do not have to end (which has been, of course, the hope for our Challenge Grant projects all along — we’d help with seed money, they’d find a way to grow and flourish on their own). Said Hickman, “This group has done marvelous things by working together. And the conversation doesn’t have to stop here. The conversation from here forward needs to be about sustainability.”

In fact, a new community collaboration is already in the works. We were there for the first informational meeting of biking enthusiasts regarding plans to expand safe walking and biking paths throughout the region. The program is a springboard effort from HGIO partner ThinkFirst and LSUS, which submitted a “Bike and Pedestrian Project” report to Shreveport’s Community Foundation.

Added Bunce, also a leader in the HGIO movement, “Collaboration is a powerful thing… It’s been great sharing program and policy ideas as a team. And thanks to the BCBSLAF Health Challenge grant to HGIO, awareness and support for obesity prevention is greater than ever in Shreveport.”