When thinking about parks, some of the first images that come to mind often center around the many activities we see happening: people walking their dogs, kids on swings, the rhythmic strides of runners.
These types of activities, among many others, fall under the responsibility of the Wellness Department.
At the Chicago Park District, the mission of the Wellness Department is to promote, educate and motivate Chicagoans of all ages and abilities to adopt a healthy lifestyle by increasing physical activity and choosing foods with high nutritional value. For a mission statement to be embraced, any effective wellness program must have as its foundation a system of policies that bolster the creation of a healthy, safe and supportive learning environment.
The Chicago Park District manages nearly 600 facilities, including more than 70 fitness centers, outdoor fitness courses and fitness studios. Parks offer patrons many options when looking for a place to exercise, learn best practices in nutrition or just walk, bike or roll to clear their minds.
With this vast number of offerings at locations across the city, Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael P. Kelly saw the need to develop a wellness policy that would help guide current and future initiatives. He appointed Colleen Lammel-Harmon, a dietician and exercise enthusiast who was serving as wellness manager for the Chicago Park District, to lead the charge. Lammel-Harmon sought guidance and help from NRPA, Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC), the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Health in All Policies (HiAP) Task Force and the Chicago Good Food Purchasing Policy (CGFPP) Task Force. The Park Users Health and Wellness Policy guide was created, based on the informed input received from experts in this field. The policy “encourages the pursuit and education of health and wellness development for every Chicago Park District park user throughout the city of Chicago.”
Lammel-Harmon and the rest of the committee were also guided by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) Healthy Chicago 2.0 program, which focuses on maximizing the health and well-being of all Chicagoans by ensuring that everyone has equitable access to health resources, opportunities and environments. The policy gave way to the creation of a task force, staffed by members of city agencies and other organizations, that provided 16 recommendations for how all city agencies can operate in ways that improve the health of Chicagoans. Among the recommendations were the following:
- promote the health of city employees
- increase the use of active design when planning or modifying building interiors/exteriors
- incorporate health-related criteria into decisions on project approval.
Lammel-Harmon and the rest of the committee considered the task force’s established guidelines and recommendations to help guide the Park District’s wellness policies.
An additional guiding principle for the wellness committee was the input it received from the people who would be the most affected by the implementation of a new wellness policy: community members. What they heard back helped to further develop a sustainable policy. People wanted healthier snacks and beverages in vending machines and improved park participation in programs, like NRPA’s Commit to Health. The Park District’s initial efforts to have all park sites pledge to “commit to health” was supported by NRPA’s Out of School Time grant. This grant allowed parks to teach kids the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards; offer Fun with Food programs, which teach healthy eating habits in a hands-on, interactive class; and incorporate at least 60 minutes of Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity (MVPA) to programs, when applicable.
After taking into account all the city guidelines and community feedback, the new policy was written, approved and implemented in late 2017. The policy has led to continued sustainability of health and wellness programs at the Chicago Park District. For example, during summer day camps and many afterschool programs, children have access to healthy foods prepared through the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). In all other Park District events, where food is being served to children, all purchases are now required to have the Wellness Department’s approval. Parks must follow federal and state nutrition standards for meals and get approval from the Wellness Department when choosing from any healthy food and catering lists. More than 2 million meals were served to children last summer in accordance with all those nutrition standards.
The Park District’s federal food programs align with the city of Chicago’s resolution of Good Food Purchasing Policy (CGFPP). The Chicago City Council’s adoption of the CGFPP demonstrates a meaningful commitment to values-based food purchasing that contributes to overall health and community wellness. The federal food program will shift a significant portion of money spent on food to local businesses and farmers. At no cost to taxpayers, the CGFPP will prioritize nutritional, affordable, local and sustainable production; sound environmental practices; fair prices for producers; and safe and fair working conditions for employees and food workers.
Physical activity is promoted throughout all programs that the Chicago Park District offers. Recognizing that physical activity is an equally important part of wellness, the Park District continually evaluates its current programming, as well as any new programs, based on MVPA standards, to ensure that no matter what the program, there is some physical activity involved for participants. One Park District program, Mighty Fit Kids, perfectly exemplifies MVPA standards. This fun, creative and constantly changing class invites participants to get a high-energy workout aimed at increasing strength, flexibility, energy and endurance, as well as improving muscle tone on kids.
The Chicago Park District’s Community Recreation Department recently announced “Health and Wellness” as one of its major 2018 goals in support of NRPA’s Three Pillars. By nature, all park and recreation departments are invested in their community’s health and wellness. Moreover, efforts to lead the nation to improved health and wellness must start within each organization. It is imperative that guidelines are created to encourage the incorporation of effective wellness practices in all aspects of our organizations. In doing so, we are preparing our parks to carry out the message of healthier practices and offer higher-quality service for all our patrons.
Emmanuel Salazar is the Special Project Assistant, Communications for the Chicago Park District. Irene Tostado is Assistant Press Secretary for the Chicago Park District.