In the capital of what has been called the most obese state in the country, Jackson lies at the heart of a comprehensive wellness program working to turn the course of the state around – one child and one family at a time.
Mississippi Roadmap to Health Equity is a Jackson-based organization committed to combatting and preventing obesity and its related poor health outcomes for African American and low-income children and families in the community. And it’s taking a two-pronged approach to this work: reducing the structural and social barriers to health that exist in the institutions of the community, while increasing access to programs and knowledge that support healthy living.
Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mississippi Roadmap is in the driver’s seat for creating multiple paths to good health that start young and last a lifetime.
Mississippi Roadmap, which has serviced more than 30,000 residents since 2003, is tackling the issue from many angles. Cooking classes for young parents, the Head Start for Health program targeting local Head Start centers, health and fitness programs for local school district food workers, farm-to-school days that increase business for local farmers and free gym memberships for children and adults are among a connected set of strategies contributing to improved health and well-being for children and families in Jackson.
“Changing the health of a community doesn’t start with changing the body. It starts with changing the mindset,” said Beneta Burt, executive director of Mississippi Roadmap for Health Equity. “We saw this play out in our work with school food service workers. We partnered with the Jackson Public School district to launch a pilot program to give food service workers access to on-the-job fitness training. As they witnessed the improvement in their own health, it affected how they thought about their own nutrition and in turn, the nutrition of the students they served. As an example, instead of canned fruits, they became more inclined to serve fresh fruits and vegetables – a much healthier choice for children.”
In addition to Mississippi Roadmap’s work in public schools, the Head Start for Health initiative is an obesity-prevention measure for promoting and developing healthy eating and physical activity habits in pre-K students and their parents. By reaching children at a younger age, Burt said they are able to instill a lifelong commitment to health and fitness in the children.
Mississippi Roadmap also has become a community resource for a host of other projects. A new summer enrichment program engages kindergarteners and first-graders in reading, while also offering healthy meals (breakfast, lunch and snacks) and physical fitness activities. There is even cooking lessons for parents to bridge the learning between Mississippi Roadmap and home.
“I wanted my daughter to go, because they are teaching the kids how to read, giving them good nutrition and physical activity, and the fact that she is around [other] kids everyday,” said Kinta Clemons, whose 5-year-old daughter attended the summer program in 2013. “I try to feed my kids healthy foods, so I want them to get healthy foods when they are away. They even offer healthy snacks – healthy brownies and muffins and cookies that were really good when I had a chance to get a taste.”
Mississippi Roadmap also has some unique partnerships that are building community awareness while adding important resources. Their partnerships with Jackson area colleges and universities enable elementary education students to serve as reading instructors. Additionally, FoodCorps service members help plant school gardens and AmeriCorps volunteers help develop community gardens that contribute to the overall operations of the program, known as “Roadmap Village.”
“We want to see if we can help prevent the summer reading loss that can happen when children are placed in ‘latch-key’ situations over the summer while their parents have to work,” Burt said.
Mississippi Roadmap’s comprehensive work also includes an on-site farmer’s market that provides access to locally grown produce, as well as a mobile market that delivers fresh produce to senior citizens who live in communities classified as “food deserts.”
Additional benefits of Mississippi Roadmap’s work includes creating summer youth employment opportunities and training for Jackson residents, a revenue-generating recycling program and a greenhouse that supports school fundraising activities – a healthier alternative to the traditional candy-selling programs.
Burt said Mississippi Roadmap’s goal is to change systems at every level to support a healthier community. This includes supporting school board policies that help Jackson farmers and offer students healthy school meals, giving parents the skills and knowledge to advocate for their child’s health and well-being and building partnerships between different sectors in the community.
“The link between health and education is undeniable. We are seeking to change attitudes and behaviors, which will, in turn, change the health of these families for the long-term,” Burt said.