Challenge for a Healthier LouisianaBy Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

As we make our way into these early days of November 2015, there’s a mix of pride and nostalgia in the air as we let go of one of our most ambitious wellness projects to date — Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana. 

Last week, we gathered with the leaders of our 12 Challenge Grant DSCN2064funded programs to celebrate and assess everything accomplished in the name of good health in the past three years. We talked about new community gardens built, famers markets launched, fitness equipment installed, healthy food access increased, free exercise and nutrition classes developed…

But of all the wonderful health and fitness goals fulfilled, perhaps the biggest accomplishment of all has been tilting attitudes in our state, parish by parish, neighborhood by neighborhood, about wellness. About getting healthy.

“This is nowhere near the end for us,” said Cynthia Cockerham, project leader for Live Lively LaSalle (with accomplishments including paved trails, a splash park, new farmers markets and a bevy of free health screenings). “It is just the beginning. We will shift the cultural norm in LaSalle Parish.”

To recap, it was 2011 when 12 non-profit teams across the state accepted our challenge — to pair up with neighboring city leaders and non-profits with a single goal in mind: develop healthier communities. We invested $10.2 million in grant funding, which was matched, then exceeded, by those working with us. In all, over $27 million was raised in the name of good health. Our goal? Create a movement in this state that would leave behind our reputation for overindulgence (leading us to the bottom of so many “worst of” national health lists). And forge a new way of thinking and living that celebrates the best of Louisiana, from a healthier point of view.

“People think they are born into obesity and that they just have to accept it,” said Pam Barton, project director for Ouachita Well. “But we just said, ‘Let’s see how we can change this. Let’s show them this doesn’t have to be their norm.’ ”

Our partners in this endeavor, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, hosted the third and final Challenge For a Healthier Louisiana Annual Meeting at its facility in Baton Rouge last week. As we have done in past years, we gathered for a dinner the night before, taking a moment to honor those doing the heavy lifting to make these projects possible.

And as the night progressed, we couldn’t help but notice the feeling of community that’s developed over the years, resulting in a network of “do-ers” who will continue the momentum we launched a scant three years ago.

Noted Michael Tipton, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, “I’m most proud not only of the innovative ideas, but of the coalitions built. Those coalitions will help things continue and will be incredibly powerful, especially in the world we live in today.”

“I still get to go out and encounter these programs,” added Andy Allen with Fresh Beginnings (another Challenge Grant funded program) and HealthyBR. “Now that the grant portion is over, I’m most proud that I get to see these programs continue post-grant.”

The dinner was followed by a day of panel discussions and general talks, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of LA Foundationdesigned to share the success and setbacks that come with helming community change.

And there were great triumphs — like the grass roots Eat Local community groups now flourishing in Central Louisiana, the vegetable co-ops exploding across Iberia Parish, the Keep It Simple Sister community fitness groups embraced by women in Calcasieu Parish, the farmer training programs in New Orleans and other pockets in the state, and the mobile playground and mobile kitchens that reached those so often unreachable. (More on these success stories in a series of blogs we’ll be running soon.)

But there were struggles, too. It’s not always true that, as the saying goes, “if we build it, they will come,” our Challenge Granters noted. It takes work pushing a community to embrace the new facilities now within their grasp. Farmers markets, for example.

“Some people in our communities see farmers markets and they are intimidated by price, intimidated by the environment,  intimidated by a lot of factors,” said Stephanie Hansen, garden coordinator for Shreveport Green (a Healthy Green and Into the Outdoors partner), during a Marketing the Farmers panel discussion. “It was up to us to help them overcome those obstacles and misconceptions.”

Even our farmers weren’t always open to the training methods we suggested — like writing a business plan or embracing marketing techniques. And, as John Dean with the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative said during our Growing the Growers panel talks, “Just because we put healthy foods in front of people doesn’t mean they always want to eat those healthy foods.”

But there were more successes than defeats. Change takes time. And the most important lesson of this final Challenge Grant annual meeting was increasingly obvious as the hours wore on. Our goal three years ago was to launch a series of programs that would “move the needle” when it comes to our state’s dismal health stats.

“So, did we do it,” asked Marti Harrell of West End Health and Wellness project in Iberia Parish. “Did we move the needle?”

Well, we’ve united roughly 350 groups in the name of good health. We’ve attracted another $4.8 million in outside grants and local government funds to continue the work we’ve started. And we’ve impacted local policies, infrastructure and the personal habits of families all over the state.

In the words of Pennington’s Stephanie Broyles (whose team analyzed data collected throughout the Challenge Grant program): we can improve health for Louisianians.

“We have a story to tell here that is strong enough to be told,” she said. “It is a robust story, it is valid… It was a large investment of money. But we did it. We can, we did, improve overall health… We are headed in the right direction.”

For more details on Pennington’s findings and the impact our 12 Challenge Grant projects have had on our state, check back here for additional blog reports in the coming weeks.

Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana