Obesity rates, especially in children, have increased at a dramatic rate in the past decade. For the town of Apple Valley, in the heart of San Bernardino County, these issues had become epidemic. In 2010, the town established a Healthy Apple Valley Coalition and received funding to hire an in-house Healthy Apple Valley Coordinator. Through several new partnerships and acquired funding, the Healthy Apple Valley program was developed, providing health and fitness education for preschool age children and parents.

A 2012 report conducted on behalf of St. Mary Medical Center found that 71 percent of adults and 31 percent of the youth in the High Desert area were overweight or obese. Recent statistics from the county of San Bernardino Department of Public Health indicate that the county’s population ranks among the most obese in the nation, and has the third-highest heart disease and second highest diabetes rates in the state. More than 70 percent of children there do not meet fitness standards while two thirds of adults are not meeting recommended physical activity levels.

Town officials were concerned about the lack of accessibility to active-use amenities, such as walking trails, biking paths, and healthy eating establishments, which was contributing to the unhealthy and passive lifestyle affecting many of its residents. The data showed that this was a worsening trend among children in the community.

Although the Parks and Recreation Department provides a wide variety of classes and sports leagues, along with parks with active use amenities, current services alone were not enough to foster a healthy and growing community. Even local fitness centers, dance studios, gymnastics centers, martial arts studios and school athletic programs failed to slow the growing obesity rates.

Apple Valley leaders decided that they needed a comprehensive strategic plan to encourage a healthy lifestyle within the community. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that obesity and associated health problems have a significant impact, costing more than $150 billion dollars (according to 2008 figures), city leaders knew they had to rally the community, including businesses, health providers, local public agencies, schools, health care providers and residents, to make Apple Valley a healthier community.

In February 2010, the town council established a Healthy Apple Valley Coalition and in June 2010, a grant was awarded by the San Bernardino County Health Department to provide an in-house Healthy Apple Valley Coordinator.

Initially comprising more than 25 community members representing a diverse group of public entities, business members, health providers and residents, the coalition established three priorities:

  1. Be Active — programming and marketing for family physical outdoor activities such as walking, biking and family activities.
  2. Eat Better — programming and marketing to promote healthy eating.
  3. Live Better — forming public and private partnerships to develop policies and other health areas.

With the town already offering activities and amenities for families and residents, it decided that focusing on the children to build these three emphasis area would be the most beneficial to the community.

First 5 San Bernardino awarded Apple Valley funding to establish a healthy preschool and the VANtastic Fun program. A three-pronged nutrition and fitness based-program was developed for 3- to 5-year olds. It also included a component to educate parents and children about the value of physical activity and healthy eating.

  • Mommy and Me classes have activities include obstacle courses and parachute games, information on the benefits of healthy eating while teaching participants about the texture and taste of different foods, nutritional themed story-time and puppet shows, and children are given age appropriate recipe books with ideas on how to stay active.
  • “My First Sports Program,” a four-week program, introduced preschoolers to basketball, baseball and soccer called “My first Sports Program.”
  • For the VANtastic program, the city refurbished a passenger van, replacing its seats with children’s play equipment, a sound system and relevant educational materials delivering fitness and nutrition education to preschools, parks or special events. The van also featured wrap-around graphic to encourage residents to “Come Play with us.”

Walking trails and active-use amenities were added to parks with funding from a public-private partnership, sponsorships and grant solicitation.

Apple Valley’s hard work has paid off.

In the 18 months of its program, Apple Valley distributed educational material on the health benefits of nutrition and exercise to more than 550 children through the Mommy and Me, My First Sports and preschool VANtastic programs.

First 5 San Bernardino extended and increased funding for two additional years if the program would expand to include nutritional programming for expectant mothers, infant programming and develop a strategic plan.

The town formed a new partnership with Kaiser Permanente that expanded the VANtastic program to reach children all ages by bringing the van to local parks during school breaks. Kaiser’s Community Benefit Foundation awarded a grant to Apple Valley to pay for the installation of outdoor fitness equipment in the Civic Center Park. Through a partnership with St. Mary Medical Center, the two offered healthy cooking classes, all which have been filled to capacity. Many of the town’s recreation programs are now free for low income youth.

Staff tracked educational value of the program and any changes in the lifestyles of the participants. Ninety-five percent of the early respondents reported that the children and family as a whole were eating more fruits and vegetables than they were prior to the program. More than 90 percent reported eating fruits or vegetables during the program that were new to them, 75 percent responded that the nutritional information provided encouraged closer examination of the products and quantities that their children ate on a daily and weekly basis, and many parents believed they would start their children in organized activities at a younger age. Participants were given registration vouchers for one of pee wee sports opportunities, and more than half used them.

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Originally posted at the League of CA Cities.