There are many reasons why New Jersey children and adults have become less healthy over the past two generations -- so reversing that trend will require tackling the problem in many different ways.
For example: Children who attend Yantacaw Elementary School in Nutley are being encouraged to walk to school each day. The effort has required coordination by town employees, school officials and parents working together.
“It’s a total culture thing – it’s that everyone is in their car,” said parent Tara Spinelli, volunteer coordinator for “Yantacaw Walks.”
Making walking to school a competition -- with the most frequent walkers winning prizes – has helped the school reverse the trend.
The walk-to-school campaign has been made possible by a “microgrant” program called the New Jersey Healthy Communities Network, which has grown and spread throughout the state over the past six years.
Recipients receive grants of roughly $10,000 to implement change aimed at improving public health, such as making fresh food available local corner stores or making sure that road projects consider the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists.
The New Jersey YMCA State Alliance helps brings grant recipients together to learn from each other.
While each grant is relatively small, program participants say the overall impact far exceeds the dollars involved. They want to see it expand beyond the 30 community groups currently taking part to as many as 80 participants within the next three years.
While the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pays the YMCA alliance to support the network, the state Department of Health (using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funds) and a pair of local healthcare foundations are funding the grants.
Kathy Smith, program officer for Montclair-based Partners for Health Foundation, said the foundation supports five network microgrants – including the Nutley school program – for a number of reasons.
“We know that it helps with academic success to be physically active, but we’re also looking at childhood obesity and chronic disease prevention,” Smith said.
In Nutley, the grant paid for a year of having a crossing guard at a particularly busy intersection. The town has taken over the cost after a significant number of walkers demonstrated that was a need.
While individual organizations are awarded the grants, they nearly always work with other groups to make the projects happen.
Other projects, such as the effort to get fresh, healthy foods into neighborhood stores, include a joint effort in Montclair and Bloomfield.
“You have a towns really collaborating and really working across borders, which in a state like New Jersey, you know, is a beautiful thing,” Smith said.
Smith said her foundation isn’t interested in simply funding projects that end when the money runs out. She said the program’s emphasis on networking and collaboration helps make the results more permanent.
“We’re really trying to change systems and policies, at the municipal level, at an organization, at the school level, so that the healthy choice is really the default,” she said.
William Lovett, executive director of the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance, noted the network began with just five communities. The relatively small grant sums have allowed local groups to launch a wide range of ideas – which has caught the attention of other communities.
He said the program also represents a broader shift in how to approach public-health problems.
A decade ago, there was more of a focus on education, such teaching people how to exercise or eat a healthy diet.
But Lovett said there is growing evidence that social and environmental obstacles can impede healthier living.
That’s why the microgrants focus on making small changes that can have big implications.
“I think our thinking has become much more sophisticated,” especially about the role the social and physical environmental can play in making it difficult for parents to raise healthy children, he said. “There are national and there are state solutions, but there are also some very important local solutions.”
For example, a mother won’t benefit from a class in healthy diet if the only accessible food is from fast-food restaurants or high-calorie, low-nutrition foods available at corner stores. At the state level, this has led to financing for supermarkets in urban neighborhoods that had gone years without having a large food outlet.
Lovett said the microgrants to help small community stores to stock more fresh food -- and to market it to picky children -- can have a big impact at a local level.
“There are things that can be done that often require more sweat equity than dollar equity in order to catalyze community change,” such as creating demand for fresh food that will last long after the grant, Lovett said.
Some of the grants are encouraging towns to adopt “Complete Streets” policies, in which changes to local roads include considering improvements to sidewalks and bike lanes, making it easier for people to walk or bicycle. The number of towns with such policies has grown from five in 2010 to a total of 110 this year, Lovett said.
“These efforts hopefully become a little bit self-sustaining and there’s a sort of viral spread that begins to occur,” he said.
Lovett hopes that more regional foundations will join the Morristown-based Atlantic Health Foundation and Partners for Health Foundation in providing more grants.
“We think the impact is far greater than if we each were doing our own thing,” he said of the network, which provides training on how to implement projects.
Lovett is in the process of applying to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for more funding for the program. He noted that it fits both the foundation’s recently announced $500 million national commitment to reduce childhood obesity and its new “Culture of Health” emphasis.
“Part of what we’re looking at is where are we trying to take New Jersey and how does it help drive a national discussion,” he said, adding that first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to encourage children to be more active while also getting communities to look at ways they can make small lifestyle improvements.
For example, Spinelli participated in a national webinar about the Yantacaw School program. And she helped the student-walking initiative spread to a local middle school this year.
While Lovett said there’s already evidence that the microgrants are helping to create programs that are self-sustaining and spreading, he’s also hopeful that they will contribute to measurable declines in childhood and adult obesity, and other public health improvements.