More than a decade ago, Dr. Frederick Hartwig, a Kansas City physician, was paying attention to the national conversation about childhood obesity as a growing public health crisis. The number of kids affected had risen dramatically from 5% in 1980 to 17% in 2004 according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published in 2006.
Because it creates grown-up health problems – heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes – in young people, obesity effectively robs kids of their childhood. Even more alarming, the disease disproportionately affects minorities and low-income populations.
So Dr. Hartwig called on two of his most trusted colleagues, David Ross, a local funder, and Randy Carlson, an attorney from Carlson Kort LLC (now Swanson Midgley LLC), to take steps toward making a difference. Ross brought Gretchen Kunkel, a nonprofit consultant, and Brenda Kumm, a public health advocate and independent consultant on board, and the team formed a plan for making lasting changes that would stop the rise of childhood obesity in our region.
“We knew the goal was lofty, but we were confident a nationwide trend was on the horizon and we wanted our bi-state region to be a leader not a follower,” said Kumm, our first president who now serves on the board of directors.
The small group kept a running list of big barriers — a broken industrial food complex, a powerful fast food industry, entrenched food deserts, too much screen time for kids, drastically reduced P.E. time in schools and crumbling sidewalks — to the healthy changes they sought as they formed a new nonprofit.
But our founders were hopeful because a number of organizations had already begun working separately on solutions.
“We realized our greatest impact would be in fostering collaboration and creating strategic partnerships rather than working on our own,” said Gretchen Kunkel, KC Healthy Kids’ president.
The team formed a small virtual agency and maximized its impact by connecting the dots, by positioning itself as the “go to,” behind-the-scenes, backbone agency for organizations that had begun working to change their communities. They connected local growers with hospitals, and health insurers with school food service staff.
They asked: “What do you need?” “How can we help?” “What can we do to promote your efforts?”
The answers came back loud and clear: “We need funding.” “Champion our cause.” “Help us reach decisions makers in our cities, counties and states.”
In doing this, it turns out, our founders had poured rocket fuel on the flames that were already burning, accelerating the work that had already begun.
They brought together farmers, health care providers, elected officials, school administrators and other nonprofits to strengthen our regional food system through what became the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition.
“It was one of our first, major collaborative accomplishments and we continue to house and support this important effort,” Kunkel said.
She and her team raised money to support neighborhoods on both sides of the state line in grassroots makeovers that brought farmers markets and community gardens into food deserts, and more sidewalks, bike lanes and transit options where few residents own vehicles. Today, Ivanhoe in KCMO and Rosedale in KCK look very different than they did 10 years ago.
Since 2005, KC Healthy Kids has helped countless organizations thrive and show the nation what can be done. And yet we stay focused on the future.
“If we are truly going to reshape our region for a brighter future, we need to educate and prepare a new generation of advocates for healthy eating and active living.” Kunkel said.