Active Living in Anoka County


It’s a warm afternoon and you’re looking for a way to get outside and enjoy the weather. If you live in Anoka County, finding a free or low cost activity at a local park has become much easier.

In an effort to make their parks and outdoor activities more accessible and visible to people of all ages and abilities, Anoka County’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) initiative, led by Anoka County’s Community Health & Environmental Services is working closely with Anoka County Parks and Recreation and all twenty-one municipalities in the county.

Local officials are working to build access and awareness of free and low cost parks and recreation opportunities. These efforts are designed to increase the ability of all community members to engage in physical activity, especially the highest risk and lowest income residents.  Susan Johnson, Anoka County SHIP coordinator, sums up their goal: “We want to create opportunities for people to be active as a family and introduce them to new ways to be active.”  SHIP funding is helping make this a reality, a program designed to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by preventing leading causes of chronic disease: tobacco and obesity.

Before SHIP, the county and city parks promoted their parks individually. During SHIP planning, officials quickly realized they could build awareness more effectively and efficiently by promoting all recreational assets within the county. SHIP launched as part of Minnesota’s Vision for a Better State of Health, the bipartisan health reform package enacted in 2008.

As a result of this goal to share resources and promotional efforts, residents of Anoka County now have a one-stop shop to find public parks, bike paths, baseball fields and more. brings all of these opportunities together in one source, making it much easier for residents to find low and no cost physical activities in their community. “We have seen a tremendous amount of support,” says Susan. “Even on tight budgets with limited resources, everyone has come together to see the value of this initiative.”

Investments in new equipment also help to make this initiative a success. Anoka County Parks and Recreation has focused on biking; purchasing hybrid, mountain and tandem bikes, as well as a child trailer. The City of Blaine purchased eight GPS units for geocaching, as well as kayaks and canoes. The GPS units are free for public use.  Bike equipment, kayaks and canoes are available free of charge on Tuesdays.  On the remaining days of the week, equipment is offered for $5.00 per hour.  Proceeds are reinvested for future purchases and upkeep.

Johnson sees the success of SHIP going far beyond the parks initiative. “The partnerships that have developed in Anoka and beyond, between public health, school districts, municipalities, parks and recreation, worksites, health systems and many others, are worth celebrating.  It’s so inspiring to see so many people working together in a new way to promote healthy behaviors.”

Download a PDF copy of this Anoka County SHIP Success story.

Local governments work together to enable Anoka County residents to find free and low cost outdoor activities.


Polk County Moves in Tandem

With assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care units, the Villa St. Vincent campus has a lot to offer their senior community—and, with recently instituted wellness programs, to the staff who care for them. The 240 employees of the Crookston senior facility benefit from initiatives of the co-sponsored company, Benedictine Health System, combined with projects supported by the Statewide Health Improvement Program.

“SHIP is just one piece of the puzzle for residents and staff wellness,” says Jean Ann Bienek, enrichment coordinator. SHIP strives to improve Minnesotans’ health by decreasing use of tobacco and finding ways to help overweight people lose weight.

To fight excess weight with exercise, local SHIP projects also include a Take the Stairs campaign, which was adopted by RiverView Health, a Crookston hospital and clinic, the Villa St Vincent and other local entities. “We need to re-think our built environment to support healthier living,” Sarah Reese, SHIP coordinator for Polk County Public Health, says. “Some of these changes can be simple and powerful. Encouraging people to take the stairs by posting signs can dramatically change behavior for the better of our health and communities.” Her office offers businesses free kits to promote Take the Stairs.

SHIP launched as part of a bipartisan health reform package enacted in Minnesota in 2008, designed to make it easier for Minnesotans to choose healthier behaviors where they live, learn, work and play.

Another step: Discovering what people want to improve their health. In 2010, Reese facilitated an employee survey on health and wellness that nearly half of the Villa St. Vincent employees completed. Topping their health wish list was information, easily accessed. That could mean, Bienek says, something as simple as a slip stapled to the paycheck or a poster tacked up in the break room.

At about the same time, the Benedictine Health System was rolling out health-oriented newsletters. Employees enjoy reading them Bienek says. “There are different topics—quitting smoking or healthy eating. I hear lots of good feedback, like at holiday time when they have pieces on stress relief.”

With SHIP funding, the senior facility also purchased pedometers for 48 employees who signed up to increase their activity through a 10,000 steps program. “People are even wearing them on the weekends,” Bienek says. In addition, about 40 people at Villa St. Vincent have lost more than 350 pounds through Biggest Loser-type team competitions.

SHIP also provides guidance to Villa St. Vincent to adapt their existing exercise rooms for staff use. Additions will include stability balls, weighted balls, and smaller weights that employees could use while on break or after a shift. When the weather improves, staff members may take walking meetings—an alternative approach suggested by Reese, to get more people moving while they work.

With worksite wellness programs working in tandem, Bienek says, “I definitely think we are making a difference in people’s health.”

Download a PDF copy of this Polk County SHIP Success Story.

Polk County businesses encourage healthy and active lifestyles among employees.

Wall hanging at RiverView Health encourages employees to take the stairs.


Anoka County’s Fresh Approach To Health

Farmers, employers and public health staff strive to create stronger connections between those who grow vegetables and fruits and the people who would like to eat fresh produce. To that end, Mary T. Inc., a Coon Rapids-based enterprise that provides housing and health care services for disabled people and seniors, hosts a weekly mini farmers’ market this summer.

“We wanted something to bring everyone together,” says Courtney Nelson, who heads the Safety & Wellness Committee at Mary T. Inc. “Everyone” includes the company’s 550 employees in Minnesota as well as the people they serve, who all should enjoy better access to fresh produce.

The mini farmers’ market is part of a fresh approach to promoting health and wellness in Anoka County funded by the Statewide Health Improvement Program. SHIP addresses the top three causes of preventable illness and death in the United States: tobacco use, physical inactivity and poor nutrition. SHIP launched as part of a bipartisan health reform package enacted in 2008 and makes it easier for Minnesotans to choose healthier behaviors by making changes in the places where we live, learn, work and play.

“We are trying to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Susan C. Johnson, Anoka County’s SHIP coordinator.

Along with Mary T. Inc., two other Anoka County work places with substantial numbers of employees will host mini farmers’ markets, with SHIP dollars supporting promotion. “Research has shown that access farmers markets and community gardens increases consumption of nutritious foods,” Johnson says. “That’s exactly what we are trying to do with SHIP.”

In parallel, the Anoka County Growers Association’s existing farmers’ markets, plus community gardens, and self-pick operations will benefit from a SHIP-funded initiative to increase awareness of locally grown fruits and vegetables. SHIP has 15 other partner worksites and, as this project develops, Johnson says employees and other residents will “know where they can go to have that direct farmer contact.”

At Mary T. Inc., the mini farmers’ market is just one aspect of the wellness initiatives. With assistance from SHIP, Mary T will also be starting a walking club to encourage employees to move more during the workday.  Employees who sign up for the walking club receive a free pedometer and commit to an end-of-summer 5K walk or run. In addition, maps of walking routes in Anoka County will be laid out for employees, who may choose to improve their health by walking a half-mile during their breaks.

Inside and online, Mary T. Inc. is creating a health information resource center on the employee intranet to provide each employee with educational materials on appropriate serving sizes, vitamins and minerals, and number of calories burned by various physical activities.

Wellness promotion funded by SHIP seems promising to Nelson. “We’re really excited about it,” she says.

Download a PDF copy of this SHIP Success Story.

Coon Rapids employer offers mini farmers-markets and workplace wellness.


Safe Travels for Dakota County

Building in physical activity as natural part of a student’s day is a great way to improve their health and prepare them to learn. With funding support from the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), ten schools in Dakota County are making it easier for their students to walk or bike to school. While this seems like an easy way to increase student physical activity, the process can be fraught with barriers, not the least of which is making sure there are safe routes kids can follow from their front door to the school grounds.

The goal of SHIP is to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by preventing the leading causes of chronic disease: tobacco and obesity. It was launched as part of Minnesota’s Vision for a Better State of Health, the bipartisan health reform package enacted in 2008.

Using assessments of their facilities as well as the surrounding communities, the ten schools worked with a local engineering firm to develop a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) plan that enables children to walk and bike to school more safely.

“SHIP support for this effort has been invaluable since creating a plan of this nature is a daunting task for schools that typically don’t have the resources to do it,” says Kris Jenson, community health specialist for Dakota County. “Their expertise is education, not in crosswalk design on local roads.”

More than 12,000 students in the participating schools will potentially benefit from the SRTS plans.

Each school adapted its approach their particular advantages and challenges. Diamond Path Elementary School of International Studies, for example, is located adjacent to a busy county road yet it is able to promote a trail passing under a neighborhood street nearby which arrives near the back of the school. A program popular with students allows them to collect points on a punch card each time they walk or bike to school, awarding a small prize after 10 punches.

“What works at one school won’t necessarily work at another,” says Jenson. “So the schools really benefit from having an assessment and plan that are tailored to them.”

Greenleaf Elementary School takes advantage of parent volunteers who serve as crossing guards at a four-lane roadway that divides the school from a neighborhood across the street. On “Walking Fridays,” parents help children cross the busy roadway. Now parents and the school are working with city officials to add a crossing light.

Other schools have mapped out routes to emphasize access to sidewalks and safe crosswalks. One school has its buses drop children at a park a half-mile away from the school so that students can walk the rest of the way with staff.

Jenson also said that school staff has shown great enthusiasm for the efforts to promote walking and biking to school. “Everyone we’ve been working with in the schools really has a sincere interest to make this safer for kids.”

Download a PDF copy of this Best of Wellness SHIP Success story.

Schools in Dakota County create safe routes for children to walk and bike to school.


Meeker County Makes Wellness Connections

Minnesota Rubber & Plastics launched wellness programs at its Litchfield plant about six years before the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) came on the scene. “We started because health care premiums were going through the roof,” says Human Resource Manager Marla Wendlandt. “We could not keep up with that pace.”

So a wellness committee was set up on the model of the company’s successful safety committee. The wellness committee urged employees to participate in active games and weight-loss contests as well as adopt changes to improve health at home. These efforts became known in the wider community, Wendlandt says, so when the local Statewide Health Improvement Program was forming, they made the connection and asked Minnesota Rubber & Plastics representatives to serve on the board.

In the Litchfield area, SHIP connected Minnesota Rubber & Plastics, seven other worksites, four local hospitals, public schools, the Chamber of Commerce, and public health agencies in three counties—Meeker, McLeod and Sibley ( SHIP uses policy, systems and environmental changes to decrease smoking and tobacco use, as well as improve nutrition and increase physical activity to fight unhealthy weight. SHIP launched as part of the bipartisan health reform package enacted in Minnesota in 2008, designed to make it easier for Minnesotans to choose healthier behaviors through changes in the places where they live, learn, work and play.

Promoting health makes sense for Meeker Memorial Hospital, says Lori Rice, coordinator of education and marketing, because the hospital’s mission is to make Meeker County a healthier place to live. “Two key things have made a difference at Meeker Memorial, leadership and support starting with the CEO and a cross-organizational wellness team to help drive initiatives,” Rice says. “Now, we are able to walk the talk with our community.”

Initiatives include new food choices on menus that feature low-fat and reduced-salt dishes with moderate calorie counts, work towards developing a smoke-free campus policy and a garden-to-table project. And, along with 220 employees, about 100 volunteers also have been offered low-cost health assessments. “We felt it was important to include our whole community,” Rice says.

Litchfield, a town of 6,700, is a “very connected community,” says Dee Schutte, director of the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber joined SHIP from the start, working with the alliance and communicating opportunities to its 250 members. The chamber also hosts a small-employer focus group to gain feedback. “Worksite wellness is one way to help businesses minimize their health care costs increases,” Schutte says. The community also piggybacked on SHIP with its own Litchfield Light, a weight loss and physical activity challenge where 186 participants lost a total of 1,711 pounds and added 9,628 hours of activity.

SHIP and other health-promoting projects reinforce Minnesota Rubber & Plastics’s already strong wellness program, Wendlandt says; “it has heightened our awareness.” And, starting in summer 2011, Minnesota Rubber & Plastics’s employees will work healthier with Stretch out Stress methods, developed with SHIP funds.

Download a PDF copy of this Meeker County SHIP Success Story.

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Local wellness leaders collaborate with SHIP to create a variety of community wellness initiatives.

Part of a new exercise program aimed at improving the overall health status of employees and volunteers, Sue Berg, RN, Coordinator of the new MMH Employee/Volunteer Phase IIIE Cardiac Rehab Program screens a new volunteer participant while Volunteer, Joe, former coach helps to familiarize participants with equipment.


A Garden Party for West Central Wellness

The garden party that West Central Environmental Consultants hosts at its Morris office this spring will be unusual. The celebration will feature fun races and other activities. But it is actually a planting party for a fruit and vegetable garden, located on-site that employees planned through their wellness committee.

This garden project is one example of the ways counties encourage residents to move toward healthier habits, with the help of the Statewide Health Improvement Program. WCEC is one of three institutions in the area that benefit from the wellness expertise of Angie Berlinger, who works at the Regional Fitness Center in Morris.

With funding from SHIP, Berlinger surveyed employees at the three sites to find out their interests, helped establish wellness groups and set up the educational opportunities that many wanted. Lunch and Learn meetings, held during working hours, are popular; companies buy their employees healthy fare and Berlinger enlists speakers, who are reimbursed with SHIP dollars.

The goal of SHIP is to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by preventing the leading causes of chronic disease: tobacco and obesity. It launched as part of Minnesota’s Vision for a Better State of Health, the bipartisan health reform package enacted in 2008, and makes it easier for Minnesotans to choose healthier behaviors by making changes in the places where we live, learn, work and play.

During the heart health month of February, for instance, she located nurses who work in cardiac rehabilitation units in nearby hospitals and clinics. They came to worksites to teach about heart disease risk factors, stress, smoking and other contributors to the health threat Berlinger calls “the number one killer of all Americans.” A bonus is that employees make a connection with the speakers and can follow up if the need arises.

For her talk, Berlinger presents exercises using stability balls or yoga stretches that can be done at the desk or workplace. “They help people to take a break,” she says, “and get out of the grind of work.”

At WCEC, most of the approximately 50 employees already take part in sports or go to the gym regularly, says Shawna Conroy, a project manager and wellness committee member. But, she adds, “as far as eating habits, it’s all over the board.”

The committee, which includes some experienced gardeners, envisioned a garden that has captured others’ interest. One of the company owners is particularly excited about this prospect and matching funds have been found for the garden. After they plant it with vegetables—and even fruit trees—employees will be active at tending it. As crops are harvested, they will enjoy foods that truly are locally grown.

For Berlinger, this garden and other SHIP-funded projects offer needed resources for healthful opportunities. “It’s not only good for those companies,” she says,  “but for the whole community.” As one employee told her: “The WCEC work garden has inspired me to continue and expand my home garden, which will involve the wife and kids.”

Download a copy of the West Central Wellness Garden Party Success Story.