A new “Healthy Living in Florida” program combines the resources of elected officials, state agencies, nonprofit organizations and other participants to educate the state’s children, families and senior citizens about healthy nutrition and an active lifestyle.
Initiated by State Sen. Rene Garcia and supported by State Sen. Bill Montford, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam, the first-of-its-kind coalition includes Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), Florida Department of Education, Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Elder Affairs, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Agency for Health Care Administration, United Health Care Community Plan, and Florida Healthy Kids.
Garcia spearheaded the effort after hearing testimony before the agriculture committee a year ago about FDACS’s ongoing and innovative efforts with initiatives such as the school nutrition program. After hearing a presentation from Robin Safley, director of FDACS’s division of food, nutrition and wellness, Garcia hatched the idea of expanding such efforts with a broad alliance of public and private organizations.
“I realized what was missing was that our state agencies were not communicating with each other and coordinating their messages we well as they could,” Garcia said. “Then I reached out to Ms. Safley and what we did was get all the different agencies around the table so everyone could see what everybody else was doing. And my goal became having them all help each other out with the programs they were offering and speak with one voice - especially when it comes to our growing season and how to do more to support our farmers.”
A foundational goal of the program, Garcia said, is to promote what is in season from the more than 300 commodities Florida produces to maximize market growth for the state’s farmers. Each state agency will have its own role in that effort.
For Safley, that means even more aggressive promotion of Florida’s school nutrition program, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers as part of a “farm to school” movement pioneered by Putnam.
For Florida Department of Children and Nutrition, it means wider and more coordinated promotion of its supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP) program. And for Florida Department of Elder Affairs, it means educating older consumers about the benefits of a healthy diet based on fresh seasonal foods.
“All of us were functioning in the same basic space, but doing different things,” Safley said. “Some of us were talking to children. Some were talking to parents. And some were talking to grandparents. But when we took an inventory, we said, ‘What if we coordinated all of our efforts and got on a common messaging platform?’ And common messaging that is coordinated always has more effect than messages that are similar, but all over the place.”
Fred Knapp, interim executive director of Florida Healthy Kids, a non-profit organization that administers the federally and state-funded children’s health insurance program (CHIP) that provides health coverage for uninsured children from birth to age 18, said, “It’s a natural fit for us, because to ‘live healthy’ - besides eating healthy and exercising - children also need health coverage. And we offer comprehensive, affordable health insurance that provides everything children need to stay healthy and thrive.”
Knapp said he views the new coalition as “a prime opportunity to coordinate with the other state agencies to get the word out about what we do. For example, we have an annual ‘Back to School’ kickoff event to promote health insurance coverage and this gives us yet another way to promote that event and our ongoing activities.”
A foundational element of the new campaign is a “tool kit”, available at HealthyLivingInFl.com, that provides health and wellness information and messaging that can be used by schools, hospitals, community organizations and businesses - in English and Spanish - to educate and motivate children, parents and seniors to live a healthier lifestyle.
The core of the tool kit, Safley said, is a harvesting calendar that showcases seasonal Florida fruits and vegetables. “It’s designed to help Florida families eat healthy and save money by capitalizing on Florida’s growing seasons,” Safley said. “And it can be used by a variety of local organizations and businesses to spread the message via social media and other methods.”
For Garcia, the key goal of the program is to promote Florida farmers and their products.
“I think it’s critical to the state’s agriculture industry that we do everything we can to promote our own produce and get more of it into schools and educate students to the fact that these products are being grown right in their back yard,” Garcia said. “So I see this effort as a win-win for everyone involved. It’s a win for our farmers, our citizens and our health care efforts.”