Making Healthy Foods the New Comfort Foods

By Michelle Martinez;Brian Kates | Posted on August 24, 2015

8.25.15_CO_Field_DayThere are new changes at work in the City of Colorado Springs, specifically at the Meadows Park Community Center (MPCC). And these changes aren’t just affecting the children who attend MPCC’s after-school programs, they’re affecting the whole city. Michelle Martinez of Colorado Springs Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services shares how receiving a Healthy Out-of-School Time grant from NRPA and the Walmart Foundation has impacted her community. As children head back to school and out-of-school time programs kick off, now is a good time to think about how your park and recreation sites can Commit to Health. 

I was a bit apprehensive when my boss asked me to implement a new health and wellness program at nine sites in our community. We had pledged to Commit to Health, but what did that mean? What was HEPA? Who were these OrganWise Guys? What were they coming to teach?

After looking into it though, I realized we were already implementing some of the programs Commit to Health focuses on. The Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (standards) required by our commitment were already being accomplish by some of the programs we had in place like 5210, My Plate and Cooking Matters. Thanks to Commit to Health we started to implement other standards on the HEPA list such as providing portable water for youth and staff at no cost, serving only non-caffeinated beverages and no full-calorie sodas or sports drinks. This meant no more sugary drink vending machines, so we said goodbye to the soda and candy machines. 

The physical activity aspects of the HEPA standards and Commit to Health were easy to work with, as we were doing a lot of these already. We were already doing physical activity outdoors when possible, doing activities at a moderate to vigorous pace for 8.25.15_CO_Tug-o-War50 percent of the time and limiting use of digital devices to less than one hour a day, except for homework. The HEPA standards require digital device use to only be used for homework, so the second thing we said goodbye to were digital devices for purposes other than that. 

Through our grant, we were able to implement the OrganWise Guys, a program that teaches young children about the importance of making healthy choices by learning about their internal organs. Our OrganWise Guys doll “Christina” and her organs, “the wise guys”  helped children learn about healthy choices and about their bodies. Best of all, the children were excited to participate in the program.

We ended up including more sites in Commit to Health and now have 10 after-school program sites. We have also opened four new before-school programs. These programs include physical activity, OrganWise Guys education, cooking classes, partnerships with three preschool classes and a wonderful partnership with an experimental garden at our very own site.

What made our adventure more manageable was the extensive collaboration of community partners, which included:

• Local health department

• Healthy catering business

• Running and bicycling shops

• Nonprofit organizations

• Convention and Visitors Bureau

• Local universities, schools and districts


8.25.15_CO_Bike_to_WorkWith their support, even in a politically conservative community like Colorado Springs, park and recreation staff helped bring voice and attention to the important role that government plays in ensuring that all of its citizens have access to a healthy lifestyle.

Some great things have happened since we took the pledge to Commit to Health. In August of 2014, the school system launched a newly adopted schedule in which classes would begin and end later. This decision was made so students would be taught during hours they are most alert. In support of this effort, two city community centers established a before-school program to offer physical activity and the OrganWise Guys curriculum to students in need of supervision. 

In December of 2014, a City Council resolution to designate Colorado Springs as a Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) municipality was approved on a 6-2 vote. An initiative of LiveWell Colorado, the HEAL Cities & Towns campaign has been successful in supporting local governments to develop and implement policies that support what essentially the NRPA Out-of-School Time grant seeks to support across the continuum of health. 


8.25.15_CO_Talk_with_CityImpacts of this designation are already being felt. Leading by example, city staff members have taken action to develop a policy for our out-of-school programs and advisory board meetings in which healthy foods would be the norm and sugary foods, such as the traditional donuts, given less emphasis. Who could have ever dreamed that in less than a year we would be having children in our programs identify healthy foods as their new, preferred comfort food?

This year, 2015-2016, we plan on adding some new ideas such as, Yoga at Sunrise, Three Months to a 5K and Hopping for Health. We have yet to address the parent health education, but we are working on this with programs such as Friday Homework Folders, Cooking with the Family and Community Gardens. 

Has your agency taken the Commit to Health pledge for any of your sites? What programming do you incorporate that meet the HEPA standards? Leave a comment below or tweet us @NRPA_news


Michelle Martinez is the Food Programs Developer/Director for the Meadows Park Community Center Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services in Colorado Springs, CO.

Brian Kates, the Facility Director and Public Relations, contributed to the development of this post.