Developing Relationships is First Step to Success

Van Buren Township, MI | January 2013 | By National Recreation and Park Association

Developing Relationships is First Step to Success 410

Van Buren Township has big plans for a healthier community, and is building the partnerships that are crucial to success. The Michigan township with a population of about 30,000 has developed several long-term health-related goals, including improving school nutrition, laying more sidewalks to encourage walking, and designating park areas as smoke-free. The Healthy Lifestyle Coalition (HLC) is an unusual group, including several large companies who were surprisingly interested in the work. Coca-Cola, which has a local bottling plant, and the University of Michigan have stepped up to offer help, as has Wal-Mart. The local newspaper, the Belleville Lake Current, has added a healthy lifestyles section, written by a member of the HLC. For the companies, backing a local cause can be mutually beneficial, as it is good marketing as well as “the mother of all good causes.”

Initially, the HLC targeted schools for multiple goals – improving the connectivity of local schools as well as the quality of food offered. The investments in infrastructure, including sidewalks, crosswalks and linked paths are sustainable ways that this coalition can improve health in the township. However, building ties with the city planning department has been more of a challenge. The coalition hopes that, like other partners, the planning department will be motivated by the dire health statistics for residents of Van Buren. 

The coalition’s biggest success so far has been with improving the quality of food offered at the schools. The food service supervisor, who was already making strides in improving food choices before she was approached by the coalition, has been a strong ally in the township’s wellness program. Although money for schools is spent on teacher development and not food service staff development, her commitment has resulted in positive change. She is getting the students to start eating healthier, and the coalition is working on getting information to parents on healthier eating. 

Building commitment to the goals and activities of the HLC has been an important first step for the group. Revisiting the commitment and finding new partners takes administrative time as well as a strong network of individuals. The HLC in Van Buren is poised, with a strong team and a set of good lessons learned, to have a positive impact on their community.