The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 10, 2012

Businesses, groups recognized for wellness programs

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Everyone knows it can be tough to convince kids to eat better foods. But adults are no easy sell either, says Sara Will, human resources administrator at Mankato Clinic.

 Will helps develop the clinic’s staff wellness program.

“We started serving granola bars instead of cookies (at meetings and functions). Everybody was, ‘Where’s my cookies?’ ”

But Will and others involved in wellness collaborations say a well-planned approach does succeed in improving health and wellness.    

Blue Cross and Blue Shield hosted an event Monday to recognize eight businesses and organizations in Mankato that have been on the forefront of wellness initiatives. “The State of Health and Wellness in Blue Earth County” featured panels and members of local groups, including United Way, Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato Clinic and legislators.

Will said the clinic’s wellness program started with voluntary health assessments employees could fill out anonymously online. The individuals got information they could use to help them, and the clinic compiled a list of top concerns, which not surprisingly included more physical activity, weight management and nutrition.

The clinic has added things such as distance-marked walking routes inside and outside buildings, expanded healthy offerings in vending machines and brought in Weight Watchers to help staff.

Erin Gonzalez, a registered dietitian at the Mankato Clinic who coordinates Mankato Area Public Schools’ wellness policies, said they’ve recently focused on getting kids to try healthier foods as new federal mandates require kids be given more fruits and vegetables and less unhealthy food in school.

She said getting elementary kids excited about it and doing things, such as letting them help make some simple, healthy foods works.

“Kids will try anything if they’re involved in making it. They will eat things their parents think they never would.”

The schools also have filled vending machines with healthier foods and are adding more healthy food to concession stands.

Laura Bowman, president of the local United Way, talked about the effort of several groups to help prepare kids for kindergarten. She said the First Step collaboration is different than how various groups approached the problem through different programs in the past.

“We recognized that our system was somewhat broken,” she said. “We were waiting until kids or families were in some trouble before we helped.”

Now, physicians and clinic staff assess needs of women who have just become pregnant and try to get them the prenatal counseling and help they need.

Other organizations such as Head Start and county home visit programs are also involved in a more unified approach to helping families and kids be prepared for kindergarten. (In 2006, just half of kids were prepared for kindergarten; the figure already has risen to 67 percent.)

She said all the groups involved have the same training so that they are all giving compatible help to families. “We have shared, measurable goals to hold all the groups accountable.”

Workplace Wellness Awards were given to the eight groups and businesses that have been involved in expanded wellness programs: Blue Earth County, city of Mankato, Mankato Clinic, Mankato Area Public Schools, MRCI WorkSource, Peoples State Bank of Madison Lake, Schwickert Co. and the Dotson Company.