We’re pleased to offer the second installment of our Spotlight series to highlight MPHA partners across the state who are changing lives and communities to improve health and advance health equity. Last month we focused on Partners for a Healthier Community in Springfield and this month we interviewed Liz Sheehan Castro, Director of the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council (WFALPC).
MPHA: How and why did the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council come to be?
Liz Sheehan Castro, Director of the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council (Policy Council) The Policy Council was established in 2006 by Tim Murray when he was Mayor of Worcester. Initially this happened at the behest of U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern to address issues of hunger in Worcester and beyond. We started by first expanding the Summer Feeding Program in collaboration with the City of Worcester and Worcester Public Schools. Our success with this program attracted the attention of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, who worked with us to design and fund “Hunger-Free & Healthy” from 2007 – 2012, a broad, collaborative project that was the foundation of most of our work as we became the Worcester Food Policy Council and then the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council.
MPHA: What’s the connection between The Policy Council and WalkBike Worcester?
Policy Council: Like most nonprofits, the Policy Council has a handful of working groups (or committees) to focus on specific issues. Technically, WalkBike Worcester (WBW) is one of these working groups—but with a better name! Karin Valentine Goins and Jerry Powers are the co-chair of WBW and they are amazing. They’re the volunteer leaders every director hopes for—they’ve made a working group function like its own organization, which we love to see.
MPHA: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Policy Council: Looking back over the Policy Council’s eight-year history, I realize that we really do have a lot to be proud of. We’re really proud of the close, working relationships we’ve built with a host of agencies, organizations, and City departments including the Division of Public Health and Worcester Public Schools. We accomplished so much together through Hunger-Free & Healthy, and now we have the confidence and trust to continue collaborations with ease and great success. We established Worcester’s first farmers’ market in a low-income neighborhood; established the School Gardens Program (now in over 16 public schools); incorporated local, fresh produce into all school meals, while also working to help pass the school nutrition legislation as part of the statewide Act FRESH campaign; and helped more than 500 Worcester families apply for and receive SNAP benefits, totaling at the very least $280,000. In 2010, we expanded the work of the Policy Council to include “active living” and that brought more partners on board, which has allowed us to focus on increasing access to physical activity in Worcester. We’re proud to be one of the Act FRESH Mass partners that helped secure $50 million for complete streets!
MPHA: What’s one upcoming thing you’re particularly excited about?
Policy Council: We’re really excited about all the work happening through the Worcester Community Health Improvement Plan. Because of this, we’ve been able to bring new partners on board and to connect with folks from other issue areas to work on a “health” platform. This is elevating our work. It’s bringing new funding and adding new energy to areas such as healthy corner stores, complete streets, and Safe Routes to School.
MPHA: How do you work with your State Senators and Representatives?
Policy Council: We’ve worked with our state electeds on several different issues over the years. We have built some great relationships with our Representatives while working on a SNAP budget item a few years ago. In 2013 we successfully hosted our first legislative breakfast that worked to build relationships as well.
MPHA: What’s something you wish more people knew about Worcester?
Policy Council: Worcester might be the second biggest city in New England, but in many ways we’re like a close-knit town. People really work together collaboratively, which makes it an enjoyable place to work.
MPHA: What advice does WFALPC have for communities thinking about starting an organization to focus on healthy eating and/or active living?
Policy Council: Collaboration and relationship building should be a primary focus and goal. Without those relationships, it’s much more difficult to make any real accomplishments in the community.