By Ann Morgan, North Country Healthy Heart Network
For the last five years, the North Country Healthy Heart Network’s Creating Healthy Schools and Communities program has worked with partners across Franklin County to increase access to affordable, nutritious food for all age groups.
Rural municipalities and school districts in Franklin County are frequently isolated from bigger grocery stores and farmers markets, thus limiting access to healthy, fresh produce. Healthier food options help lower the risk of chronic disease and improve health outcomes. Students need nutritious food to perform their best at school, and the tools and education to incorporate healthy living into their lifestyles.
The Heart Network has worked to pass dozens of worksite wellness, school wellness and vending policies, assisted with Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programs, and utilized a variety of strategies to address issues of food access and nutrition. Four strategies in particular have netted positive results: the Mobile Farmers Market, school garden programs in Malone, the Fruit and Veggies campaign in Hogansburg, and new and enhanced school breakfast programs.
Mobile Farmers Market
The Mobile Farmers Market, a collaboration of the Joint Council on Economic Opportunity and the Heart Network, started as a stationary farm stand supporting a worksite wellness initiative in 2017. This program became mobile in 2018 with one bus making 12 stops per week. Between 2018 and 2019, the market’s popularity and reach expanded dramatically. Sales increased by 55 percent and the use of farmers market vouchers rose by 64 percent.
In 2019, two greenhouses with hydroponic systems were built as part of the market’s sustainability plan. COVID-19 threatened to cancel the 2020 mobile market season, but the market opened on time with strict protocols to keep customers safe. Site stops have increased to 24 and salad bars are available on both buses. A partnership with the Field and Fork Initiative gives SNAP participants the added bonus of Double Up Food Bucks, doubling the amount that can be spent on produce.
School gardening programs
Heart Network garden programs in Malone schools — Flanders Elementary, Malone Middle School and Franklin Academy — exposed local students to new vegetables and educated them about the nutritional and health benefits of locally grown produce. At Flanders, students learned to grow herbs; at Franklin Academy, the gardens were incorporated into the health class curriculum, where students learned to plant, tend; and harvest vegetables.
The biggest successes in school gardening came from students at Malone Middle School. Using gardening in school settings gives students skills to be more self-reliant. Giving kids ownership helps them become more invested in their own health.
With technical support and materials provided by the Heart Network, school breakfast programs at Davis Elementary and Franklin Academy, in Malone, provided more opportunities for students to start their days on the right foot. At Davis, the Heart Network helped expand an in-classroom breakfast program. A breakfast cart was established at Franklin Academy giving students greater flexibility to access the school’s breakfast program.
The breakfast cart — essentially a breakfast-after-the-bell program — makes sure that students are getting the fuel they need for the school day. High school students often aren’t hungry when they first wake up in the morning. After the first period, this can lead to headaches, nausea and low energy. Frequently, students turn to the vending machines, which don’t offer the kind of nutrition to keep them focused. The breakfast cart brings food to different parts of the school, so students don’t need to worry about making it to the cafeteria in between lessons.
In 2019, the Heart Network teamed with the Partnership for a Healthier America to bring the FNV (fruits and vegetables) campaign to businesses, schools and nonprofits in and around Hogansburg. FNV encourages people to eat more fruits and vegetables by leveraging the popularity of athletes and entertainers in its advertising. The Heart Network’s FNV partners included the school, health center and small retail stores.
The campaign demonstrated success at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Heart Network staff conducted a total of 285 surveys — 138 prior to the FNV campaign launch, and 147 after its conclusion. Respondents were asked about their shopping habits, fruit and vegetable consumption and campaign awareness. The number of people who reported eating fewer fruits and vegetables over a three-month timespan dropped from 14.5% pre-campaign to 7.5% post-campaign. People whose fruit and vegetable consumption increased went from about 23.2% to 32.0%.
The Heart Network has formed lasting partnerships throughout Franklin County that will continue to grow and cultivate increased access to nutritious foods through school and community activities and programming. We are grateful to all of our partners who work with us day in and day out to build foundations for healthier communities.
Ann Morgan is executive director of the North Country Healthy Heart Network. To learn more, visit heartnetwork.org.
Photo: Mobile Farmers Market, a joint project of JCEO and the Healthy Heart Network