KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Faced with alarming trends in obesity, diabetes and related problems, some of the nation’s largest health foundations came together in 2006 in a movement aimed at promoting healthy eating and physical activity.
Five years later, that movement, the Convergence Partnership, continues and its work and organizational model are spreading regionally.
For example, in Pennsylvania, the partnership helped fund the Fresh Food Financing Initiative after a national study showed that Philadelphia had the second lowest number of supermarkets per capita of any major U.S. city.
The so-called, “food deserts” in that city’s low-income neighborhoods were linked to high rates of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related ailments. The initiative, drawing on public and private dollars, established a fund that has encouraged private developers to launch grocery stores in underserved areas.
The program’s components include a bank-syndicated supermarket loan fund, the federal New Markets Tax Credit and direct grants to store operators and developers.
As of June, 2010, more than $73 million in loans and $12.1 million in grants had been awarded in Pennsylvania. The approved projects were expected to create more than 5,000 jobs and more than 1.6 million square feet of commercial shopping space.
The initiative received an Innovations in Government award from Harvard University.
There now are convergence movements underway in at least nine states.
Having seen some of the successes that developed elsewhere in the country, a Missouri Convergence Partnership is being developed.
Jane Mosley, a program officer with the Health Forward Foundation, which is a partnership member, said the Missouri convergence effort is still in its, “embryonic” stage.
But it is already clear, she said, as when any big idea gets discussed in Kansas City, the state line dividing the metro area is sure to come into play sooner or later.
For that reason, members of the Missouri Convergence Partnership are looking for ways to include Kansas.
“We would like to see more of a regional approach,” Mosley said. “It’s a challenge for us. It does not make a lot of sense for us to stop at the state line.”
The Missouri Convergence Partnership was established in 2008 under the leadership of Amy Stringer Hessel, a program officer at the Missouri Foundation for Health in St. Louis. It was among the first state organizations modeled on the national Convergence Partnership.
“The whole goal is to figure out what funders can do better together than they can separately,” Mosley said.
Promoting local produce
One idea that Missouri partnership members have shown interest in as they develop the group’s future agenda is promoting the use of locally produced farm products in schools, hospitals and other places that serve large numbers of people.
“There are different things that can be done,” Mosley said, “to get healthier food into large-scale institutions.”
Another Missouri Convergence Partnership member is Gretchen Kunkel, president of KC Healthy Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing obesity and otherwise improving children’s health.
“I hope the Convergence Partnership will choose one or two specific topics and gather up the financial and policy support needed to see change across the state,” Kunkel said. “We may choose to do something like put together a distribution mechanism to get farm-fresh foods into institutions like schools, restaurants and health-care institutions.”
In that example, Kunkel said, Convergence Partnership members would be, “investing in infrastructures so that there would be a way for small-volume producers to get food into the distribution system at a price that’s competitive with tomatoes grown on large farms in Mexico and shipped here.”
Kunkel said there also are programs that can be accomplished with the help of local governments such as “Complete Streets,” planning which calls for building codes that require bike lanes or broad sidewalks that encourage walking or biking.
But before the partnership can undertake any fresh-produce pipeline or complete-street plans, the group must first finish laying the ground rules for itself.
“It has been two-plus years of gathering information and trying to figure out the right way for the partnership to proceed,” Mosley said, noting that there still remain a number of details to be worked out.
For example, she said, “We (The Health Forward Foundation) have geographical restrictions on our funding and others do, too. It’s not as simple as putting money into a pot and saying we will all pay for this. We are trying to figure out how to navigate the process and do more than just fund our grantees.”
All that could be sorted out soon.
“The goal is to have a model platform with two or three areas we have designated to move toward,” Mosley said. “We are not there yet, but we hope to be in the next couple of months. We are trying to hire someone to be the logistical coordinator…We need someone to provide the glue to keep it together.”
The partnership’s members, besides those already mentioned, include representatives of some of Missouri’s major institutions and businesses:
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, the Heartland Foundation of St. Joseph, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Missouri Foundation for Health, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University in St. Louis.
For now, there is less interest in the national convergence partnership model among Kansas’ health foundations because the major ones already had histories predating the national group of working with other organizations and on projects to encourage healthy eating or exercise.
For example, the Sunflower Foundation, headquartered in Topeka, began funding hiking and biking trails in 2005. There now are more than 70 Sunflower trails in more than 30 counties across the state.
“In Kansas, there’s a whole lot of healthy eating, healthy living activity going on,” as part of the health foundations’ project work, said Sunflower Chief Executive Billie Hall.
She also said Sunflower officials would be holding a retreat next week to determine some future directions the foundation might take and one thing being considered is a healthy eating project, “that will probably focus mostly in schools.”
Hall said the “convergence movement” among foundations in other states, “really came from national funders looking to work with state funders.”
The Kansas Health Foundation in Wichita already had established funding partnerships with other organizations throughout Kansas, including some focused on promoting healthy life styles, so there is no new effort underway there to establish a Convergence Partnership, as such, said KHF Vice President for Communications Christopher Power.