Nurturing Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, and a Healthier Future

Nurturing Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, and a Healthier Future

Photo of Garden kits in crates

Written by: Elora Overbey, Grow Appalachia

Cigna Foundation Grant Furthers Berea Wellness Hub in Partnership with Berea Kids Eat

Grow Appalachia, a Strategic Initiative of Berea College, has received a $30,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation to work in partnership with school systems and the surrounding communities to supplement existing programming for children to help close nutrition gaps both within and outside of the school environment. The gift is part of the grant program, Healthier Kids For Our Future®, a five-year, $25 million global initiative focused on improving the health and well-being of children made possible by Cigna and the Cigna Foundation.
Grow Appalachia’s Berea Kids Eat Program has worked directly in Berea since 2016 to fight childhood hunger, increase healthy food access and support community food resiliency. To date, the program has served more than 400,000 meals to youth while supporting health and wellness initiatives and food security programming for low-income communities.

Bags of food in crates

“We're really excited that Cigna has helped to fully braid together all the goals of Berea Kids Eat, which is not just about reducing food insecurity but also increasing healthy food access by building food skills at the household level for the future,” said Martina Leforce, coordinator of Berea Kids Eat.

Since its launch in 2019, Healthier Kids For Our Future® has awarded more than $8 million in grants to nonprofit organizations working to reduce childhood hunger and improve youth mental health throughout the county. This program furthers Cigna's commitment to addressing social determinants of health and eliminating barriers to care for all communities as part of its Building Equity and Equality Program.
Building upon the strong foundation of existing community partnerships and strengths of local agencies, Berea Kids Eat has utilized funding from the Cigna Foundation to address food insecurity through four initiatives:

  • increasing healthy meal access to youth ages 18 and under
  • building household and community food resiliency
  • collecting and sharing best practices with partners
  • formalizing a community network committed to building local food security

“We are proud to support the work Berea Kids Eat is doing to provide healthy meals for local children,” said Greg Allen, MidSouth market president, Cigna. “During this challenging year, too many children have faced food insecurity. Through this Cigna Foundation grant, we can help improve the health, well-being and peace of mind for the families in our community.”
Since 2016, Berea Kids Eat has partnered with Berea Community School District to identify potential accessible summer meal sites in low-income neighborhoods. While BKE has established a mobile meals route to serve fresh meals directly in neighborhoods during summer, these current and potential meal sites lack greenspace, weather protection, seating and handwashing facilities needed to effectively administer programming services.

Martina Leforce standing in front of bus

Thanks to the support from Cigna, Berea Kids Eat and Berea Independent Schools have converted a retired school bus into the Berea Wellness Bus. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Berea Wellness Bus has been an invaluable pillar of infrastructure used weekly to transfer food directly from local vendors to area youth via meals and fresh food kits. Once it is safe to do so, the Bus will visit low-income neighborhoods daily, to meet families where they are and serve fresh meals in a comfortable and engaging setting to youth ages 18 and under. Moving forward, in partnership with Berea Community Schools, the Bus will also serve as a distribution point for fresh produce, provide summer learning opportunities, serve as a mobile health screening clinic and offer enrichment programs to youth in low-income neighborhoods.

Cherry tomatoes in a box

Berea Kids Eat aims to build long-term food resiliency with area youth through hands-on gardening, culinary experiences and nutrition education. However, many families experience barriers to opportunity access including: lack of available space or resources to grow food, limited knowledge or skills relating to culinary and garden practices and time restrictions. To increase access, Berea Kids Eat is focusing on improving and expanding public gardens located at summer and afterschool meal locations such as the public library, public school and a local community garden situated in a low-income housing tract.

Pollinator patch

Funds will be used to construct culinary and pollinator demonstration gardens that incorporate youth programming with summer and afterschool meals. The pollination project is a part of the John Paul Mitchell Systems’ Peace, Love, and Butterflies Outdoor Education Center located at Glades Community Garden in Berea, Ky. Public education garden sites will serve as demonstration sites and venues for Berea Kids Eat to host best practices workshops designed for community outreach volunteers and institutional staff.
“We're choosing to look at water and trees because we're talking about long-term generational ecosystems… and also these perennial projects that are benefiting multiple generations and investing in projects that will have long-term benefits to the community,” Leforce said.

Outdoor learning center at Glades Community Garden

Funds will be used to support youth garden entrepreneurship at the local farmers market, provide garden-to-table cooking classes with summer meal service and after school programming, and provide recipe cards with supplemental produce distributed with Weekend Backpack meals. These endeavors will allow youth to participate in hands-on activities which connect personal health and well-being with a fundamental understanding of nutrition and interest in healthy habits. Additionally, Berea Kids Eat will use funds to provide hands-on garden and culinary workshops for partners committed to incorporating food and environmental education with classroom and out-of-school learning.
“The Healthier Kids for Our Future Grant has allowed for us to look beyond just immediate hunger relief and incorporate nutrition programming into our meal service so that we're not just looking at the immediate need, but also addressing future food skills with families,” Leforce said. “It's not only provided us with an opportunity to dig a little bit deeper with the families we're working with, but also to build a vision for a healthier Berea moving forward.”

Visit the Cigna website to learn more about Healthier Kids For Our Future.