Melissa Flurry reports on Central Louisiana’s Foodapalooza conference.

By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation

What’s it like to be part of a ripple effect? To be a part of a movement that launches a chain reaction for the better throughout a community?

Our 12 grantees know, and they shared what that experience has been like during our Annual Challenge Grantee Meeting at Pennington Biomedical Research Center (also our partners in hosting the event) Oct 28-29. For the past year, our grant award leaders have worked to create new wellness programs meant to galvanize otherwise sedentary communities, and launch true change in neighborhoods bereft of fresh foods.

“You are now the experts on how to do this,” said Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation Executive Director Christy Reeves. “You are creating the ripple effect that will bring new changes across the state.”

BCBSLAF Executive Director Christy Reeves offers encouraging words to grantees.
BCBSLAF Executive Director Christy Reeves offers encouraging words to grantees.

It’s already been a year since the BCBSLAF awarded $10.2 million to 12 grant applicants across the state, encompassing 500 local government agencies and non-profits, all joining forces to create brand-new health and wellness programs for Louisiana. The goal was to motivate change in our entire state — a state that traditionally falls at the bottom of national health measures. Over three years, each grant supported project has been mandated to spend between $250,000 — $1 million on community projects. Each grant winner also pledged matching funds, so that, in total, some $28 million was earmarked for wellness chance measures. The projects are estimated to touch roughly 1.7 million Louisiana residents.

And that’s already happening, one project at a time — a community garden here, new playground equipment there, a walking trail, a bike path, cooking classes, farmers markets, farmer training, after school programs, group fitness classes, health fairs… To name a few.

Though we’re only wrapping up year one, project leaders already see the impact.

Pennington’s Elizabeth Gollub guides grantees through their presentations.
Pennington’s Elizabeth Gollub guides grantees through their presentations.

“I have kids running up and telling me, ‘Ms. Marianne, I bring kale chips to class instead of potato chips,’ ” said Grow La Project Leader Marianne Cufone, who has lead several healthy cooking alternative classes in the New Orleans area in the past year. “And it just brings tears to my eyes.”

She also leads a “growing the growers” program, teaching small scale farmers how to operate more efficiently.

Ouachita Well’s Pam Barton reported leading a charge for no smoking ordinances in her community and creating new guidelines for vending machines (guidelines like bottle water options and foods with lower sodium, sugar and calorie counts).

The Healthy Living Club in Lafayette now has a bustling mobile food pantry, expanded a breast education program, and made upgrades to area parks. “We held a focus group about what park upgrades to do,” said Joan Landry during her HLC presentation. “And one made me almost cry because people actually clapped — they clapped — because they couldn’t believe their parks were going to be improved.”

meeting-4Live Lively LaSalle spoke of their 56 fitness scholarships, a nearly complete walking trail, a new splash park for kids set to open this spring, and plans to help local restaurants improve health options on their menus. Dare to Be Healthy helmed a community fitness class for women responsible for more than 700 pounds lost, collectively — so far.

meeting-1And we’re just scratching the surface on the programs grantees summed-up for us earlier this week. So many new programs. So many positive changes.

Yes, there were “challenges” in launching some Challenge Grant initiatives, as is often the case when kicking-off new programs. But the meeting also proved to be a chance to commiserate on those obstacles and share ways to get around them. In the end, it was uplifting for us all to sit back and review such good work, done in such little time.

meeting-2“Is it amazing to see what all your projects have done in just one year,” Reeves asked the crowd of grantees following a day of project summary presentations. ”Are you excited about it? You should be. Now just imagine what you’ll do in two more years!”

We can’t wait.