Supporting Healthy Kids and Communities Through Safe Routes to School in Minnesota

Girl biking on a street path.

In this guest blog post, the Safe Routes Partnership highlights how strong state support in Minnesota has helped build a robust program that has benefited nearly 500 schools and reaches 110,000 students every two years.

The Safe Routes Partnership’s report Making Strides: 2018 State Report Cards on Support for Walking, Biking, and Active Kids and Communities analyzed how each state funds and supports SRTS programs, providing each state a score on various Safe Routes to School strategies.

For more reading on how state policies can support physical activity and the National Partnership’s report cards, read our conversation with Michelle Lieberman, Senior Technical Assistance Manager at the Safe Routes Partnership.

Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs are so popular in Minnesota that sometimes when the state puts out a call for proposals, community requests end up exceeding the available funding by as much as five to one. Nearly 500 schools have been awarded SRTS funding through MnDOT since 2005, and more than 110,000 students are currently benefitting from SRTS programs at their schools, by walking and biking to and from school more often.

A look back at how Minnesota’s SRTS program has evolved since 2012 shows how a successful legislative campaign, fueled by strong community demand, has led to a formalized, state-funded program with a long-lasting impact for students and communities.

In its 2018 report, the Safe Routes Partnership awarded Minnesota the maximum number of points possible for dedicated state SRTS funding and for funding non-infrastructure projects. The state’s success in this area can be traced back to a legislative campaign that began in 2012, when the federal SRTS program was ending.

At that time, health and transportation advocates in Minnesota formed a broad coalition to build support for a dedicated state program. The coalition was made up of more than 50 organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, the Minnesota for Healthy Kids Coalition, the Minnesota Medical Association, MinnesotaPTA, and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood – a 250-square block area in St. Paul in which 80 percent of the residents are from communities of color.

A graph showing the decline in the percentage of children walking or biking to school.
The percentage of children walking or biking to school has declined dramatically in the last 50 years.

The coalition successfully got the state to establish an SRTS program, but the program had no funding for the first year due to a significant state budget shortfall. In 2013, despite a continuing budget shortfall, the coalition built bipartisan support that led to $500,000 in funding over two years.

With a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in 2014 the coalition went back to work on a new campaign initiative to build broad, bipartisan public and legislative support for more SRTS funding. In response, the legislature approved $1 million for SRTS infrastructure funding and an additional $250,000 per year for programming, yielding a total of $500,000 annually for non-infrastructure funding.

“Prior to 2012, the majority of investments in SRTS in Minnesota were focused on infrastructure,” said Dave Cowan, Minnesota’s SRTS state coordinator. “We were funding a lot of sidewalks and crossings near schools, which were needed, but we weren’t delving into education and encouragement. Since 2014, when the current funding structure was established, we have been able to use the non-infrastructure dollars to support communities through rigorous planning processes and strategically select projects that were included on the non-infrastructure side.”

The annual non-infrastructure funding has also bolstered the state’s bicycle and pedestrian safety education program, which has trained more than 700 teachers to provide walking and bicycling skills lessons to students.

“In just the past few years, I’ve noticed a shift in culture. Public health professionals, policymakers, education partners, and DOT staff are working together in many ways to support safe, equitable streets for people who walk and bike.”

Dave Cowan, Minnesota’s SRTS state coordinator

Minnesota also received full points in the State Report Cards for having retained its full-time SRTS coordinator position, even though it’s not required.

“Having a dedicated state coordinator focused on SRTS within the DOT is critical,” said Cowan. “There is a lot of work to do beyond administering funding – it’s crucial to also focus on relationship-building and education both within and outside of the agency around the value and importance of walking and biking to school. The more staff you have doing that, the more impact you’re going to have over time.”

Minnesota also earned the maximum number of points for providing technical assistance for SRTS initiatives. The program helps communities with funding applications by offering webinars, workshops, guides, and other outreach. The state also launched its SRTS Academy in 2016, which offers a free training to help communities build a comprehensive SRTS program or take their existing program to the next level. “We customize the training based on the community’s level of experience, and provide it to any community that requests it,” said Cowan.

Minnesota’s strong score in the State Report Cards gives advocates even more leverage to build support for prioritizing SRTS through the federal Transportation Alternatives Program, and demonstrates how a state’s commitment to supporting SRTS can lead to better health and activity outcomes for kids.

“Even in just the past few years, I’ve noticed a shift in culture and in the way people talk about transportation at the state level,” says Cowan. “It’s not just SRTS program staff that care about prioritizing walking and biking. Public health professionals, policymakers, education partners, and DOT staff across departments are working together in many ways to support safe, equitable streets for people who walk and bike.”

Published on May 30, 2019

Young boy holding plant in a garden

Stories and Expert Perspectives

Hear from experts about the impact of policies and programs in their communities, read interviews with researchers about data releases, and learn how some communities are taking action to help more children grow up healthy, including from places that have measured a decline in childhood obesity rates. 

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Doubling Dollars and Extending the Reach of Healthy Food Initiatives

Vegetables including tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally produced by Voices for Healthy Kids and is also available on their website.

Healthy Food Access

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 40 million people live in neighborhoods without access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food options, making them “food insecure.”[1] Residents of these communities typically rely on fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer little to no fresh food.[2]

Inspired by Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), which began in 2004, many states and cities are now pursuing food financing programs to help alleviate food insecurity. The federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which started in 2010, has been critical to launching many of these programs. The initiative expands access to nutritious food in underserved communities through strategic partnerships with grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers’ markets, to equip them with the necessary tools to provide healthy food and step towards health equity.

Other healthy food access programs leading the way include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks. SNAP is a program that helps millions of individuals and families with low incomes buy groceries. Financial incentives such as Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent at participating markets and grocery stores, encourage SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables, boosting local economies.

Driving Change in Arizona

Recently, nonprofit Pinnacle Prevention secured state funding to expand the Double Up Food Bucks into Arizona. This program doubles the value of SNAP benefits when they are used to buy Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables. So, for every dollar someone spends using SNAP benefits at a participating farmer’s market, they will earn a free dollar from Double Up to spend on Arizona-grown produce, up to $20 per day.

Farm Express, which launched in 2014 with the support of Pinnacle Prevention, is one initiative that uses Double Up AZ. This community-run mobile produce market provides access to high-quality, affordable produce for residents with little to no access to healthy food in Arizona’s Phoenix and Tempe regions. Elyse Guidas, Executive Director of Farm Express, emphasized that the organization is “truly rooted in the community – from our customers to our employees.”

“We continue to hear how our incentive programs change how families eat, especially at the end of the month when they are pushing pennies,” Guidas said. “When I get a chance to watch a kid try a new fruit for the first time, I know we are doing something good.” When asked about the future of Farm Express, Guidas reflected, “Our goal is to continue to grow our emphasis on buying locally sourced food, while growing our operation to ensure that cost is no longer a barrier to healthy living.”

State Healthy Food Financing Initiatives

Since 2010, the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) has brought grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America. More than a dozen states also have their own state or local funding initiatives to support access to healthy foods.

Learn More

Building Relationships for Success in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA) successfully secured $1.1 million in capital funding and operating dollars, in each of the last two fiscal years, to help implement the Massachusetts Food Trust Program (MFTP). MFTP provides loans, grants, and technical assistance to support new and expanded healthy food retailers and local food enterprises in low- and moderate-income communities.

MPHA credits its relationships with local coalitions, the state government and national partners, as key to this campaign’s success. “Relationships are always at the core of MPHA’s campaign work,” said Kristina Kimani, Coalition & Advocacy Manager of MPHA, “and in this case, the relationships that MPHA has nurtured over the last six years culminated at a critical moment in the campaign to overcome what could have been a significant obstacle.” Where MPHA lacked specific experience around the financing and internal structure of a healthy food financing program, it called upon national experts, including food advocacy experts at The Food Trust based in Philadelphia, with experience administering these programs in other states.

MPHA also engaged the community through its Healthy Food Financing Working Group, which has remained strong and active over the past six years. The association garnered the support of more than 70 organizations and 200 individual advocates. MPHA will continue to inform and mobilize its network of community residents, local and state governments, and community organizations, capitalizing on the MFTP.

Community Leads the Charge in Louisiana

Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of congregations and community-based organizations, recently secured three years of funding, totaling $1.5 million, to start the East Baton Rouge fresh food financing initiative in Louisiana. Nearly 100,000 residents in East Baton Rouge Parish – about 20 percent of the parish population – live in “grocery gap” neighborhoods, or neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food retailers.

“Our campaign is truly driven by residents from these communities,” said Broderick Bagert, Lead Organizer of Together Baton Rouge. “We see real grassroots leadership from the communities most affected.” Bagert noted that the key to the campaign’s success was a “never-say-die” spirit and an underlying sense of dignity, passion and purpose that drove the community’s neighborhoods to fight for access to healthy foods. “There is no substitute for a recognized, organized constituency with the desire for change,” he emphasized.

Bagert also stressed the importance of understanding the complex support infrastructure behind the retail market in well-served areas – developers who know the landscape, companies that handle permitting, political backing and more. Together Baton Rouge utilizes its partnerships to help navigate the existing market, working to create permanent solutions in these underserved areas. “We are working to fix the fundamental ways in which our local economy is set up, and this is no small task,” Bagert said.

Children and their families reaching for fruit at an outdoor stand

Increasing Healthy Food Access Through Community Investments

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) is a public-private partnership that provides grants and loans to finance the construction and development of grocery stores and other healthy food retailers in these underserved areas. 

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Joining Forces in Mississippi

Southern Institute for Public Life (SIPL) partnered with Working Together Jackson in Mississippi to campaign for fresh food financing in the city of Jackson. While Jackson is currently experiencing a budget crisis and the city has not yet funded an official program, this campaign successfully built widespread support for future fresh food financing. SIPL worked with leadership within 40 member institutions of Working Together Jackson – 30 of which are located in low- and moderate-income communities – to develop key relationships with state, local and county officials.

Additionally, SIPL fostered valuable relationships with member institutions and other ally organizations to expand its expertise and knowledge base about healthy food financing advocacy. “This kind of work is difficult, but not impossible,” Perry noted. “If you develop the relationships and make the case with the right people, you can really make progress.” Recently, SIPL began working with business leaders to develop new markets for fresh foods with a focus on minority-owned farms, as it continues to support initiatives in the Jackson area.

Increasing Access to Healthy Foods in Your Own Community 

These are just a few examples of communities that are taking action to address food insecurity across the nation. Overall, healthier communities create stronger economies, and research shows that the presence of a healthy food retailer improves access to healthy foods, promotes healthy eating, creates jobs and stimulates additional investment.[3] For more information and to find out how you can advocate for similar programs in your area, visit our Healthy Food Access and SNAP toolkits, or join the Healthy Food Access Team.

Read more success stories from Voices for Healthy Kids.

Young boy holding plant in a garden

Stories and Expert Perspectives

Hear from experts about the impact of policies and programs in their communities, read interviews with researchers about data releases, and learn how some communities are taking action to help more children grow up healthy, including from places that have measured a decline in childhood obesity rates. 

See More Stories