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After the City of Fort Worth ranked as one of the worst metro areas for well-being in the nation in 2014, Texas Health, city and community leaders set out to address that by making permanent changes to policies and social networks at worksites, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, faith-based communities, and local organizations to make healthier choices easier.
Today, these lifestyle improvements benefit more than 200,000 people every day. Through healthier eating, increased activity and stronger social connections, the city is now the country's largest certified Blue Zones Community. It improved its well-being ranking from 185th out of 190 major metropolitan cities to 31st, which it has maintained throughout the pandemic. The team’s next goal is to help Fort Worth become the healthiest metropolitan city in the nation.
Texas Health, the City of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce brought Blue Zones Project to Fort Worth and spent the next few years collaborating with more than 500 organizations and funding allies to transform the community.
In 2019, Blue Zones Project Fort Worth activities and funding moved fully under the umbrella of North Texas Healthy Communities (NTHC), a community outreach arm of Texas Health. Since then, NTHC has continued implementing best practices and expanding support into high-need schools, faith communities, worksites and neighborhoods identified by Texas Health’s Community Health Needs Assessment.
- Received the prestigious 2022 Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service from the American Hospital Association. Blue Zones Project was one of three Texas Health initiatives that led to the recognition.
- Was honored with the Texas Hospital Association’s 2022 Excellence in Community Service Award.
Creating affordable access to fresh produce and healthy food – inequities and socioeconomic gaps that were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic – remains a priority. To that end, innovative programs and initiatives to address food access and nutrition education continued to be developed and expanded, impacting thousands of residents for the better. These include:
- Double-Up Food Bucks: The program matches federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits so that individuals can double their buying power when purchasing fresh produce at three grocery stores and one farmer’s market. With new funding from the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, Double Up will expand to five additional farmers markets/stands across the Dallas/Fort Worth region in 2023.
- Good for You Pantry: NTHC leverages relationships with affiliated schools and community organizations to provide families with no-cost produce and other healthy staples in a convenient and familiar location. NTHC also provides recipe cards, cooking utensils, and access to virtual cooking demonstrations and other nutrition education content. The program will be expanded to 10 additional locations throughout Tarrant County in the next two years, thanks to an American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant of $646,000, which Tarrant County administers.
- Fresh Access: The program provides fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month to seniors and youth who attend activities and receive services at 17 area community centers. Nutrition education tools, cooking demonstrations and other family resources are often included.
- Produce Recovery Pilot Program: NTHC works with a local grocery chain and compost company to divert thousands of pounds of viable produce from landfills to pantries and urban farms (see story below).
- School gardens: Studies show school gardens encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables and are linked to happier moods, lower rates of obesity and healthier habits lasting into adulthood. NTHC supports 27 school learning gardens across Tarrant County and provides a gardening consultant who assists with planning, crop selection, planting, cultivation, and integrating garden activities into schools’ curricula.
- Completed 26,764 Double Up Food Bucks transactions at grocery stores, providing $179,166 in supplemental dollars for fresh fruits and vegetables. At a farmer’s market, 121 new customers redeemed almost $7,000 in Double Up benefits.
- Expanded the Good For You Pantry program to eight Fort Worth schools and two community-based sites. Throughout the year, the pantries distributed 127,835 pounds of produce to more than 5,900 families.
- Enabled more than 14,700 youth, seniors and residents to receive 109,355 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables through Fresh Access. The program also provided 2,200 water bottles to summer camp participants.
- Assisted schools in obtaining $90,000 in grants for garden improvements, $10,000 in in-kind donations and volunteer support from organizations such as Fidelity Investments, Aramark and Alcon.
- Provided 2,655 pounds of fresh produce to 355 residents at faith-centered health fairs.
To help individuals identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders, NTHC provides certified trainers to deliver Mental Health First Aid instruction. This nationally recognized program teaches practical skills, how to assess if someone is at risk of suicide or self-harm and provides access to various resources. NTHC also provides self-care resources to other faith and community leaders.
- Expanded monthly mental health training to additional community agencies. More than 300 people participated, including some employees of Southwest Airlines, GM Financial and Meals on Wheels.
- Held a Faith Summit to reinforce the importance of pastoral self-care, which attracted more than 50 area faith leaders.
Opening a book can open the door to healthy outcomes for students and their families, including lowering the incidence of depression and increasing the likelihood of high school graduation, employment, preventive care and longevity. NTHC teamed with Scholastic Book Fairs, Read Fort Worth, schools and other organizations to introduce children to the joy of reading.
- Collaborated with Scholastic Book Fairs to provide 20,116 free books to area schools. Scholastic donates a percentage back to the schools for additional reading supplements and resources.
- Distributed 3,500 books to Read Fort Worth, local farmers markets, coffee shops and select grocery stores.
Snapshot: Giving Unused Food New Life
If not sold, perishable foods from grocery stores often end up in landfills instead of being diverted to people in food-insecure areas. This food waste keeps hungry people from being fed and generates extensive greenhouse gas emissions when landfilled.
To avoid these issues, North Texas Healthy Communities (NTHC) launched a Culled Produce Recovery Pilot program to divert viable food to local pantries and convert food waste to nutrient-dense compost for use at urban farms. While the concept is simple, executing it is difficult since it takes time and resources to sort nearly expired produce and transport it to places that can extend its value.
Since late 2020, NTHC has been working with Foodland Markets and a team of volunteers to take expired food to local pantries weekly. It also engaged Compost Carpool to gather and covert food scraps into compost, which Opal’s Farm and Mind Your Garden Urban Farm use to grow new food.
By the end of 2022, the program had expanded to three grocery stores and five urban farms, supplying 151,319 pounds of compost and 13,754 pounds of fresh, edible produce to people in need. NTHC hopes to attract volunteers and grocery stores to reduce food waste.