It takes a village to improve the health and wellbeing of families in Northwestern Michigan

When a transplanted Arizona bike enthusiast met a Michigan SNAP-Ed nutrition educator who had young children learning to cycle, the result was a highly successful collaboration that now includes walking and biking programs at all Traverse City elementary schools.


That well-timed meeting between two people turned into a collaborative effort between Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and Norte, a Traverse City biking advocacy organization, funded in part through a Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) SNAP-Ed grant. This is also just one example of the successful policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work TCAPS has conducted through SNAP-Ed funding. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.


Currently, TCAPS has two schools eligible for SNAP-Ed programming – and their SNAP-Ed nutrition and physical activity initiatives have influenced other schools in the district, as well as the community at large. For instance, the successful implementation of Norte’s bike instruction in SNAP eligible elementary schools led to extending the programming to all TCAPS elementary schools and has helped promote the initiative across the Traverse City area community.

Pre-schoolers in the Grow It, Try It, Like It program enjoy learning about and tasting cantaloupe.

PSE work has become the formula for success for TCAPS’ SNAP-Ed initiatives. The process emphasizes the importance of not only providing direct education to individuals to improve health but also collaborating with like-minded individuals and community organizations who are striving to systematically improve the health and wellbeing of children and their families in northwestern Michigan.


“All good things take time and concentrated effort,” says Patti Tibaldi, a retired teacher, coach, assistant principal, and athletic director who is now grant developer for the 10,000-student district. “It’s like the old saying, ‘It takes a village.’ It’s an example of what happens when you’re working with people in the community and developing relationships. We're seeing the benefits. It's engaging our families and our kids." 


A year ago, MFF funded a “PSE Community Exploration” for SNAP-Ed staff in TCAPS. The PSE exploration explored the root causes of poor health in the Traverse City community, something Tibaldi describes as an “eye-opening experience,” because it involved a wide range of conversations and interviews with their most vulnerable citizens and the organizations that serve them. One of the results that emerged was that TCAPS was well situated to be an outreach organization for programming with the goal to reach community residents and students in need.

Many factors across the community impact health, including basic needs for day-to-day living, juggling family schedules, access to health care, and transportation. Despite the beauty, abundance, and access to the outdoors in the region, many residents live in rural areas where those without adequate or reliable transportation cannot access walking and bike trails, parks, and recreational activities outside of the school setting.

Cycling is one important part of developing an active community in the Traverse City area.

It takes “out of the box” thinking grounded in community-based collaborative efforts to address these types of deep-rooted and systemic challenges to health and wellness. For example, investing time and person power into partnerships with Munson Medical Center, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, Shape Up North (led by Munson Medical), Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, and Rotary Charities have yielded important initiatives that help to address challenges to good health.

Upper elementary students in the PE-Nut program create faces for their rice cake snack.

Building strong, collaborative relationships takes years. Through Munson Medical Center’s Shape Up North, a regional coalition was formed. While the coalition aims to inspire residents to eat healthy and be more physically active, this work has also led to productive, visible initiatives. TCAPS and Munson, along with other community partners, collaborated on an application to the Michigan Health Endowment Fund for a variety of health initiatives in the region. The collaboration has brought a realization that community groups working toward similar health goals can support one another while avoiding a replication of services or resources, Tibaldi says.


An even bigger and more impactful collaboration is on the horizon, as TCAPS, Munson, and the CHIR (Community Health Innovation Region) have been awarded a grant from Rotary Charities to explore how TCAPS’ current wellness policy is working - and to examine wellness policy best practices. That seed money will enable the district to strategically plan how to bring systemic changes in wellness policies to benefit students, families, and staff. The wellness policy is particularly important, as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional demands and stress on teachers and educators, who were tasked with teaching children virtually during the state shutdown. The wellness policy also can address the mental/social/emotional issues students and staff face and suggest strategies for developing resilience.


“Staff wellness has long been neglected and overlooked, yet educators have some of the highest stress,” Tibaldi says. “They are asked to be everything to everyone, and with COVID that stress has been multiplied many times over. We owe it to our educators to support and provide them tools to be resilient and strong in the face of adversity.”


While policy may not seem as flashy or impactful as other externally facing initiatives, articulating and implementing wellness expectations so that best practice becomes the norm is the first step in systemic change. That change can eventually affect the entire community.

Traverse Heights students celebrate Innovation Day by creating and measuring ingredients for a healthy snack.

Alyson Kass, Shape Up North coordinator, says a wellness policy is “super important,” noting that every school system needs to have one. A wellness policy can address things like recess for children, food choices in the cafeteria, and recommended snack options in addition to policies for staff.


“TCAPS has done a good job,” she says. “I feel like we’re reading from the same page. Each school has a different way of implementing their wellness policy and the way they roll wellness programs out.”


The relationship between TCAPS and Munson Medical, who also happen to be the region’s two biggest employers, has proven beneficial for both organizations’ efforts to improve wellbeing across the community.


“We’re trying to move the needle on health and wellness in our community,” Kass says. “Healthy kids make better learners. We want to be there with TCAPS, partnering with them to overcome some of the basic barriers that impact the ability for kids to learn.


“The partnership has been a good one and we hope we can continue to help each other. Health care is not just inside the four walls of a hospital. It’s really the community and what we can do together to keep people healthy.”


In order to accomplish the long-term goals of improved community health and wellness, Tibaldi says it is critical to form partnerships, develop relationships, work together, and set milestones that make it possible to reach goals.


“It is all about developing relationships, supporting each other and building trust,” she says. “Baby steps can lead to giant steps and make a significant difference in your community.”

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