Healthy Eating Starts with Elephants and Pizza

By Adriane Clutter | Posted on August 27, 2014

Because we understand the essential role of parks and recreation in creating healthy communities, NRPA has worked tirelessly to promote initiatives that help our members implement top-notch programs for fitness and nutritious eating. Our Commit to Health campaign supports the implementation and evaluation of Healthy Eating, Physical Activity (HEPA) standards in park and recreation sites across the country, like Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Recreation. Here, Manager of Youth Development Adriane Clutter gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how her agency took steps to implement HEPA standards in both public-facing programming and everyday activities among staff.

When facing a daunting task, high-stakes project or an attempt to change culture, I constantly hear the voice of my mentor and old supervisor asking, "How do you eat an elephant?” As the voice grows louder in my head, I begin to hear my usual reply, "I know, I know, one bite at a time." 

Sometimes we have to present the “elephant” to our colleagues, staff and stakeholders in small pieces — where sweet success comes with every bite. The smallest changes can make the greatest amount of transformational gains. In youth development, we call this “motivation to mastery.” It is like the first time you learn to put your face in the water and hold your breath. The next thing you know, you are standing on the edge of the diving board contemplating the leap. With every little accomplishment, you get the courage to go further and further. That same thing applies here. We just needed to start with something small, like pizza!


Blog-Commit-to-Health-Kids-Getting-ActiveThe Montgomery County Department of Recreation (MCDR) in Maryland has been providing high-quality, affordable programs that are safe and enjoyable for years, and we have accepted a new challenge to earnestly evaluate policy in an effort to eliminate practices that contradict healthy behaviors. Food, more specifically pizza in large quantities, was often the hook used by many departments to get kids in the door and into safe places — an example of good intentions with inadvertent consequences. I once thought about putting out an RFP to all the local pizza places because we ordered such high volume! 

NRPA’s Commit to Health initiative, forged in partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Partnership for a Healthier America, highlights an important function of park and recreation agencies that goes beyond simply getting people in the door to register for our programs. It includes the introduction of Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards, which offer guidelines for agencies seeking to provide healthier eating options to members, guests, campers and visitors. The HEPA standards challenged MCDR staff to put into practice the sort of positive lifestyle choices we advocate for the communities we serve. We see them as more than just standards — they are indicators that help to paint a clear picture of what success in healthier habits looks like. 

Most appealing, HEPA standards won’t expire, unlike many other programs offered by recreation departments that typically have a beginning and end, run in life cycles, and ebb and flow as the political tides change. Often, healthy program initiatives are difficult to measure and staff members are likely to dismiss new efforts as just another good intention that eventually will fade away. This time, in Montgomery County, we decided things were going to be different.

The minute you mention the words “standards” or “policy,” people start to panic as if the aforementioned elephant just crashed into the room. We knew we were going to need a new approach. We knew that the language of management had to reflect the culture we wanted to create. We began to use words and phrases such as “quality,” “recognition,” “new approach” and “doing business differently.” Soon staff members started to associate themselves with higher standards of quality in both their personal efforts and in the programs they provide. Repetition has become a very important tactic — talking openly about the new standards at every opportunity, from staff meetings and business luncheons to personal conversations at the water cooler, has become an essential factor to success. 

Small steps such as altering the snack inventory from greasy pizzas to fresh fruits and vegetables are indicative of MCDR’s progress toward becoming a department entrenched in the philosophy of wellness. We at MCDR are aiming to integrate HEPA standards in everything we do, and we began by assessing our current practices. We knew that we had to help ourselves first before we would be in a position to help others, like when a flight attendant says, "When the mask drops from the overhead bin, secure your mask first, and then assist the persons next to you." We adopted a Healthy Eating Standard to indicate staff should not eat unhealthy foods in front of participants. We also made sure healthy options were available at staff meetings whenever food was served. This was an easy way for management to set the tone. 

The Food Fun & Fitness program offered this summer is an example of how HEPA standards were integrated into MCDR’s traditional public-facing programming. The program, offered in partnership with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), provided a balance of healthy activity to hundreds of children, while serving more than 14,000 healthy meals. The program was pivotal in ensuring that children had access to nutritious food and physical activity during the summer months. This new approach not only helped to tell our story, it also helped MCPS overcome the bias of the dreaded healthy school lunch. This Food Fun & Fitness video featuring children from the Fox Chapel neighborhood in Germantown, Maryland, is an example of MCDR’s public declaration that access to quality health and physical activity is our greatest priority. This program shows how policy changes translate into on-the-ground success.  




The Food Fun & Fitness Site Director Brenda Barrera (L), and Youth Development Manager Adriane Clutter (R), modeling positive summer fun behavior for camp staff and participants  


It has only been a few months since we began integrating HEPA standards into our programming and we are already seeing positive changes. 

Here are five easy ways to introduce the HEPA standards in your department:

  1. Decide to Commit to Health — declare it publicly and in writing; 
  2. Recruit others to join you; 
  3. Create opportunities for small wins; 
  4. Change your language; and 
  5. Repeat and model your message everywhere you go, from the front desk staff to the board member  

Learn more about Commit to Health, HEPA standards and how you or your agency can begin making healthier nutritional choices.   


How can your agency make small changes to incorporate the HEPA standards? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter with the hashtag #CommitToHealth.


Adriane Clutter  is the manager of youth development for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation in Maryland. Judy Stiles, media and public relations specialist contributed to the development of this post.