Kansas City, Mo./Kan.

    • January 11, 2010

Only a state line separates Missouri’s Kansas City from Kansas City, Kan., but like most big metropolitan areas, this one is a mix of neighborhoods with sometimes similar, sometimes distinct characteristics. Take Argentine, a mostly Latino community on the Kansas side of the line, and Ivanhoe, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the Missouri side. The flavor of each is very different, but they share one thing in particular when it comes to health: Both communities suffer from high rates of childhood obesity.

The Hartwig Legacy Foundation hopes to turn those rates around with the Bi-State Kansas City Healthy Kids Initiative. The foundation picked Ivanhoe and Argentine as the initial sites—at least two more communities will be added later—because they were ready for the environmental and policy changes critical for success. Both have impressive records of activism, as seen in voter registration drives and neighborhood improvement campaigns.

“We want residents to have the skills to advocate for the long term,” said project director Gretchen Kunkel. “Building a healthy community takes time.”

In partnership with groups such as the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association and the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, the initiative will focus on making it easier for the communities’ 16,000 residents to eat more nutritious foods and be more physically active.

Studies show that people living in areas without grocery stores often have trouble finding healthy foods such as fresh produce. Argentine is no exception, and attracting a full-service store is a top priority. But the initiative also will try to improve access to Argentine’s parks and other places for youth to play, a challenge given the dense population, small house lots and little open space.

Seven miles to the east, littered lots and vacant properties diminish the quality of life in Ivanhoe. So does the lack of healthy food outlets or safe parks and playgrounds. One out of every three households here has no car, meaning that a trip to the supermarket can be an arduous journey.

With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the initiative will help both neighborhoods. For its part, Ivanhoe will push for walking trails, recreation facilities and community gardens where residents can grow fruits and vegetables. Joint-use agreements with schools and churches will open doors for sports and other activities that encourage youths to be fit.

Some of the other organizations involved will address problems that affect not just one site but the entire bi-state region. The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition, for example, is a group of individuals, businesses, and government leaders working to develop a sustainable food system that can deliver healthy foods to children no matter what their ZIP code.

As long as the project straddles the Kansas-Missouri border, it will require cooperation and collaboration on an unusual number of levels.

“We’re dealing with different cities and states,” Kunkel said, “and that poses one of the biggest challenges to this project.”

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