Healthy food pilot an example of the accreditation process at work

Johnson County program features healthy food choices at parks and rec concession stands

0 | Legislature, Public Health

Laurie Jorgensen, of Kansas City, Kan., picked up half a jalapeno chicken wrap and other items at the Okun Fieldhouse concession stand on Saturday. The county-run facility in Shawnee, Kan., is one of two pilot sites that have switched to a health-conscious concession menu.

Laurie Jorgensen, of Kansas City, Kan., picked up half a jalapeno chicken wrap and other items at the Okun Fieldhouse concession stand on Saturday. The county-run facility in Shawnee, Kan., is one of two pilot sites that have switched to a health-conscious concession menu.

— In past trips to Okun Fieldhouse, the Jorgensen family might have made a quick lunchtime run for pizza at a nearby convenience store.

But on Saturday, Laurie Jorgensen of Kansas City, Kan., settled down at a table outside the playing area with half a jalapeno chicken wrap and some baked chips.

Her daughter, Kylie, a 15-year-old freshman at Piper High School in Wyandotte County, was among the participants in a weekend tournament that drew nearly three dozen club teams from throughout the region.

With as many as 1,000 people expected in the gym any given time during the weekend, the tournament presented the first big test for the revamped, health-conscious concession menu at the county-run facility.

“I think its heart healthy – for children and adults,” Laurie Jorgensen said.

Two test sites

Okun is one of two sites where the Johnson County Park & Recreation District started the healthy-menu pilot in January. The portions served also are in line with healthy eating guidelines.

New Century Fieldhouse, near Gardner is the other site. The district’s concession manager, Matt Galley, said he was encouraged by how well the new offerings had been received there.

He said concession revenue from a weekend volleyball tournament earlier this month was about a third higher than normal. The new food prices are comparable to the old ones.

Concession dollars account for about 8 percent of the roughly $13 million in revenue the recreation division generates annually, said Jill Geller, superintendent of recreation.

A bigger rollout of the healthy menu depends on the financial performance of the two pilot sites, she said. Geller said district officials hope the test goes well because artery-clogging concession food doesn’t mesh with the department’s mission.

“We truly feel that everything Johnson County Parks and Rec does contributes positively to the health and wellness of people,” she said. “You can come and walk the trails in our parks, you can play volleyball, you can take an aerobics class. Everything we do is designed to make you healthier and we wanted our concessions to reflect that same philosophy.”

Healthy concessions also are a priority of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, said Renee Bryant, healthy food policy coordinator for the agency.

Community health assessment

The department’s focus on it sprang from a community planning process, she said, in which participants identified increased physical activity and better nutrition as key areas for improvement. Those priorities were included in a new Community Health Improvement Plan, which the county issued in May. The plan sprang from the health department's community needs assessment done as part of the national accreditation process for local health departments.

Working through its Access to Healthy Foods Coalition, which it formed last year, the department identified healthy concessions as a way to improve nutrition for residents. The Parks and Recreation Department is part of the coalition.

In a fall telephone survey of residents commissioned by the coalition, respondents overwhelmingly indicated a desire for healthier concession items and a willingness to purchase them if they were offered.

“We have had great feedback,” Bryant said. “We know that everyone is excited about it. This is a need that the community has had that we have not addressed yet, the schools have not addressed, and so that’s why we are pulling everyone together to look at that.”

The health department hopes to receive grant funding this summer to initiate an awareness campaign stressing the need for people to make healthy choices at concession stands.

“The goal … is to reach the community, parents, families, patrons, to educate them and make them aware, so that the changes can be profitable and sustainable,” Bryant said.

Talking with school districts

The department also wants to help school districts in Johnson County begin offering healthy options during extracurricular activities for middle school and high school students, including at sporting events and school plays, Bryant said.

The department already has had preliminary discussions with officials in the Olathe and Shawnee Mission school districts.

The primary aim in those districts would be improving the food offerings in buildings that have a significant percentage of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. Students from lower-income households may not have as much access to health food as those from higher-income homes, Bryant said.

Back at Okun, Galley said concession sales were tracking well at about $1,410 by midway through the lunch hour on Saturday.

And the healthy entrees were performing admirably against some of the greasier fare, even though cheeseburgers topped the list.

Nathan Sullins, 25, of Holden, Mo., chose the chicken wrap. He referees at about half a dozen facilities around the region and he said the food at Okun stacked up well against anything else he had seen.



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