Article by Edgar Mendez and Sharon McGowan
Photos by Edgar Mendez and Kenya Evans
Healthy Kids Healthy Community (HKHC) organizers from across the country descended upon Milwaukee last week to see first-hand what community partners are doing to stem the tide of childhood obesity and encourage residents to be more active.
About 200 people attended the HKHC annual meeting, according to Sarah Strunk, director of the HKHC National Program Office in Chapel Hill, N.C. A program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HKHC works to support healthy living in 30 American communities. United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM) is one of 50 grantees to receive a four-year grant from the foundation. More than 500 organizations applied for the grants.
This year’s national conference included walking tours of Clarke Square and Lindsay Heights, as well as visits to Agape Community Center, in the Thurston Woods neighborhood, and Growing Power, a nonprofit that focuses on urban gardening. Two bicycle tours highlighted “complete street” designs, safe routes to schools and trail systems for cyclists and pedestrians.
“What was so exciting about having the meeting here was that it really gave all of us from Milwaukee a chance to see the assets that we have to offer around healthy eating and active living, and community change,” said Sarah O’Connor, HKHC project coordinator and nutrition director for UNCOM.
What they saw and learned about the neighborhoods left a positive impression on participants, Strunk said.
“A lot of people have not been to Milwaukee. They may have outdated stereotypes of the city from Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley or the sausage races at Miller Park,” Strunk noted. “I heard people say, ‘Milwaukee has a lot going on.’ It was very nice to hold up a gem of a city that people weren’t familiar with,” she added.
HKHC chose Milwaukee for the annual meeting because of its efforts to promote active living and healthy eating policies, and also because it has many of the same challenges facing other communities, according to Strunk.
Kristen Wilson, 36, who works with HKHC at the Cornell University cooperative in Kingston, N.Y., said Milwaukee is light years ahead of Kingston, a city of 28,000 people, but both cities are confronting limited funding and reduced community services, among other issues.
“Getting buy-in from business and community leaders and on the same page is extremely challenging,” said Wilson, who went on the Clarke Square tour.
The Lindsay Heights walking tour included visits to Alice’s Garden, Fondy Food Market and Walnut Way, where visitors viewed an environmentally friendly storm water management system for the extensive garden.
The Clarke Square tour included visits to Mitchell Park, CORE-El Centro and Cesar E. Chavez Drive, where a streetscape project was completed in September. The project, which took more than four months to complete and cost nearly $2 million, involved engaging community organizations, private partners and the city to work together.
Sam Robinson, 41, a project manager for HKHC in Columbia, Mo, was impressed by the community-engagement approach to neighborhood revitalization that he saw in Clarke Square.
“I totally agree that we need to empower individuals to impact communities by encouraging their participation,” Robinson said.
As a result of the tours, HKHC representatives from around the country got a good sense of the partnerships, collaboration and community engagement that are creating healthier communities in Milwaukee, O’Connor said.
Added Strunk, “People saw the quality of life transformed by some of these changes. Now hopefully they will replicate what they saw in other communities.”