County program aims to get kids healthy and outdoors

Sussex County is getting national attention for a program designed to improve the health of its children, and plans are to expand the program with a focus on active living in the outdoors.

On Aug. 9, John Hollis of Sussex Outdoors and Nemours Health and Prevention Services told Sussex County Council members that its child health program – supported by Nemours and its partners, including the county council – had been nationally recognized by the Let’s Move program for its three years of efforts “to make Sussex County’s children the healthiest in the nation.”

Hollis said the “state-of-the-art early childhood campaign” to encourage healthy lifestyles among children of preschool and school age was the focus that very day as part of a national Webinar from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in which Sussex County was being singled out as one of 40 achieved communities – the only one in the Mid-Atlantic – being recognized for showing progressive action on the issue.

The state’s 146th General Assembly, Hollis noted, had “taken unprecedented action to create an environment conducive to healthy eating and active living” through Senate Bill 130 and funding in this year’s bond bill of the “No Child Left Inside” and “Child in Nature” programs.

“This is an example of how Sussex County, and the entire state of Delaware, is becoming a national leader.”

Hollis particularly pointed to Sussex as a leader in farm-to-school initiatives, through which 10,000 children have been served fresh fruits and vegetables grown in Sussex County as part of school programs, saying that the county was leading the effort in Delaware as a whole. He expressed his gratitude to the council for their support of the initiatives, which was shown through a council resolution.

“These partnerships are producing results that are getting national attention, particularly in treating the most expensive drain on our economy – the treatment of chronic illness. … This is the biggest challenge in our future, and probably the best job being done – not just locally, but regionally – is in Sussex County, Del.,” Hollis said.

He also touted Gov. Jack Markell’s support of the initiative, including a series of events and a campaign being called “Sussex County Outdoors,” which will feature an Oct. 13 event at Trap Pond Nature Center, during which state and local leaders will hear from a speaker from the CDC and from the governor about their vision of what can happen in Sussex County in respect to children’s health.

The state park will be open from 1 p.m., free of charge, that day, to all Sussex Countians, Hollis noted, pointing out that Delaware State Parks are a key partner in the effort, along with the Sussex County Land Trust and Bike Delaware, which he described as key in the successes the effort had in the General Assembly this year.

Hollis said Bike Delaware representatives had focused on the ramifications for economic development from tourism generated by the effort and had demonstrated a passion for completing a trail running from Georgetown to Lewes that would provide a safe walking and biking environment for county residents and visitors alike.

“This is an example of putting Sussex County not just on the regional map but on the national map,” he said.

James Wilson, executive director of Bike Delaware, said the group was also focusing on the idea of walkable and bikable transportation routes as a way to help during a time of economic difficulties.

“Delaware spends an average of $9,000 per family on transportation,” he said. “It’s the second-largest household expense after housing. And, in an economic environment like the one we have now, people are making extremely difficult choices.”

Wilson said the support from the General Assembly of such efforts “not only has important implications for encouraging people to live more active lifestyles but giving people more options. Instead of two-car families, they can be one-car families,” he said. “People who come to enjoy Sussex County’s beaches want to enjoy the outdoors. They want to be active. … This will bring people to parts of Delaware they wouldn’t otherwise see.”