By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

This year, as our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana initiative leaders gathered in Baton Rouge for the annual grantee meeting, we expected to hear a lot about the good things accomplished across our great state. We’ve been at this for two years now, after all. And this fall marks our third and final year as sponsors to 12 ambitious wellness programs stretching from New Orleans to Shreveport.

But what we didn’t expect were all the stories of “spring board” projects that have

cropped up as a result of our initiatives — new grants, a new food hub, an additional mobile playground, more farmer training programs, a change in school lunch policy, to name a few. To be clear, these are not Challenge Grant supported entities. Rather, these are independent events that have evolved on their own.  These were not supported by Challenge Grant.  These were inspired by our movement. Apparently, healthy living is contagious.

“This morning, someone asked me if the third year means we are winding down,” said Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation Executive Director Christy Reeves. “Winding down? We’re just gearing up. This is the year we’re going to explode!”

Two years ago, we invested $10.2 million (in the form of grants). All we asked is that each program match that contribution (in dollars and in-kind services) and then get to work making a change — real community change — happen. In total, we spurred a nearly $30 million investment in our local communities. Last week, the dividends from that investment rolled in.

We met at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. Pennington Biomedical is, of course, our partner in this bold project that promised to help “move the needle” when it comes to health and wellness statistics for the people in our state. They are the task masters, crunching the numbers, measuring the outcomes. And while we aren’t at the finish line yet, it’s already obvious… We’ve had an impact.

Throughout these many months, we’ve posted countless blogs highlighting

individual milestones — the new farmers market in Tullos, a new community farming table in Colfax, a splash park in Jena, hydroponic gardening co-ops in New Iberia, Saturday fitness activities for kids in New Orleans, a new mobile kitchen in Alexandria, a mobile playground serving East Baton Rouge,  new Eat Local community groups in Central Louisiana, a thriving fitness group for women in Calcasieu Parish and numerous cooking classes, farmer training courses, community gardens, park improvements, health screenings, paved walking trails and nutrition education events… And that’s not even the half of it.

Now, as we enter our third year, we’ve asked our initiative partners to already look beyond our time as major funders and look toward sustainability goals to keep these programs going and growing.

Because, as guest speaker Joanne Lee with Active Living by Design put it, “Sometimes doing nothing in a community is just as bad as doing a little something and then pulling back. It’s like you’re saying, ‘So sorry community, we’re just going away now.’ ”

But as we learned last week, many of our project partners understand that message loud and clear. Leaders for Dare to be Healthy, our initiative in Calcasieu Parish, have already secured plans to sustain all but three of their major programs throughout the parish (including the very popular Keep It Simple Sister – KISS – fitness support group for women, responsible for assisting ladies in their communities to drop over 1800 pounds). Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative is awaiting news on a USDA grant that will continue and expand their farmer training programs. And a Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors partner captured new funds to expand a community garden and cooking program for kids.

Other partners have asked school and city leaders to permanantly incorporate the projects we started into their budgets and schedules.

“If not for Challenge Grant, we never would have seen such cooperation between our leaders (including the city, police jury, YMCA and others),” said Pamela Barton, project director for Ouachita Well.

“If not for Challenge Grant, we wouldn’t have a platform for other organizations to form,” said Mary Himel, who oversees a garden co-op with West End Health and Wellness. Himel expects to be involved in the new food hub a fellow local was “inspired” to start after seeing all the new community gardens develop in her home town.

If not for Challenge Grant, Jena’s beloved Mayor Murphy McMillin (a Live Lively LaSalle partner) wouldn’t be leaving behind his post for a newly created job that will push for even more healthy changes parish-wide.

And Andy Allen with Fresh Beginnings shared a startling statistic — in the 20 years prior to our movement, the term “food desert/food access” had almost never been used in the local media. In the last couple of years, there have been 44 mentions.

“Wow,” said Lee, after hearing all the good news. “Now that’s impact. That’s changing the conversation.”

Indeed, we have a lot to be proud of. After all, is this not what we hoped for when we began over two years ago? To be not just the drivers of a few temporary initiatives — but drivers of a state-wide movement? One that will take off and have a life of its own, far after our involvement.

But for now, we’re still in it. We’ve got another 12 months in store, and we can’t wait to see just how much more “we’re going to explode.”