NOW truck launchBy Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

As we launched our $10.2 million, three-year Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant initiative back in 2012, we certainly hoped we’d see major changes in health attitudes across the state. After all, the money launched a plethora of new wellness programs and healthy infrastructure in neighborhoods stretching from New Orleans to Shreveport.

But, truthfully, we were uncertain about sustainability. Would the programs we helped launch dry up eventually? Just wither away after our funding support disappeared in the fall of 2015?DSC_0024

Apparently, we had little to worry about. We are still early into our third and final year of Challenge Grant, but already, a steady stream of new grant funding from outside agencies is streaming in, promising to keep our programs going (even growing) well beyond 2015.

Most recently, the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative (made possible in part through a Challenge Grant award) just landed more than $500,000 in grant funding (dispersed over three years) from Keller Enterprises LLC to continue the work of increasing access to locally produced foods. Keller Enterprises, a company with deep roots in the Central Louisiana community, is committed to the local foods movement, working in the past on projects with the Food Bank of Central Louisiana. And so, they happily embraced the initiative we began two years ago, in partnership with the Central Louisiana Economic Development Aliance (CLEDA) to support local farmers because, in the words of Jim Clinton, president and CEO of CLEDA, “Access to fresh local foods elevates economies, communities and the health of children and adults.”

Clinton added, “This generous gift supports continuation of the important work we have been able to do through previous gifts from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation and the Rapides Foundation. ”

The money comes on the heels of a $42,000 award also bestowed on the Central Louisiana initiative — the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant.  The money will be used to look for better ways to connect farmers to local grocery stores, restaurants and schools, said John Dean, also a CLEDA representative and one of our Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative partners who helped launch the local foods movement in several surrounding communities.

“Challenge Grant created the foundation to get us to this point,” Dean said. “Now we’re at a place where we need the right infrastructure to move forward. Maybe build a food hub? Trucks for better distribution? A cold storage facility? We’ll be looking at anything that will help farmers and producers sell the food they grow more regionally. What can we do to help our farmers make more money?”

Last week, we proudly announced another $500,000 grant from the USDA, this time to our partner Growing LA (Growing Local Nola), to continue the work at its urban community farming and learning center, located in the heart of uptown New Orleans (1750 Carondelet St). The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program grant will “keep up the work we started after Challenge Grant funding concludes this fall,” said Marianne Cufone, project director for Growing LA and the executive director for the Recirculating Farms Coalition.  USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden flew in from Washington D.C. to announce the award and tour the farm site, which offers raised garden beds, a green house, chicken coop, and a raised platform stage to host community fitness activities.

“I just wanted to see first hand what’s being done out here,” Harden said during her tour. “I think the concept of urban farming is so important. It has the power to change everything.”

And late last year, we learned that one of our Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors programs, the FIT (Food Initiative Task Force) Kids project in Valencia, led by LSU AgCenter’s Grace Peterson, secured a $675,000 USDA grant to develop three new learning gardens for kids in underserved neighborhoods within the Shreveport/Caddo Parish region. The project teaches city kids from low-income neighborhoods how to plant, nuture, harvest and cook all manner of produce — especially veggies they’ve never heard of, let alone tried!

And we know this is just the beginning of more outside grant support to come during this, our final Challenge Grant project year. We set out to start a positive health movement in this state – to strike a spark that would generate new flames of passion across Louisiana for good eating, good health. So far, we feel the heat from those flames rising higher and higher. And we just love it.