Candace Pierce, Rhode Island


The American Heart Association’s National Office was recently awarded a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce chronic diseases and health disparities in low-income communities across the country.  The National Office selected 15 markets to receive funding for this program and we were very excited to learn that the City of Providence was one of the designated sites.   Goals of the grant include increasing access to healthy food and beverages and increasing opportunities for physical activity.  Candace Pierce was hired this past April as the American Heart Association’s Regional Campaign Manager charged with implementing the Providence grant.  We sat down with Candace to ask her about her work...

Q. Why was the American Heart Association interested in applying for this grant for Providence?

A. Zip codes are one of the best measures of heart health, and those living in low-income areas have a shorter life expectancy due to a higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases. Providence has a significant low-income population with limited access to healthy foods and beverages and places to be physically active.

Q. How will you have an impact?

The grant is aimed at policy, system and environmental changes. If people have better access to healthy foods and beverages and have safe places to be physically active, they will be healthier. Part of this includes teaching people that these things are important to their health. In particular, we are aiming a large amount of our work at children, so they have more opportunities to eat healthy and be active, while also learning the importance of this. Children who are obese or overweight are more likely to grow up to be obese and overweight. We hope to break that cycle or stop it before it starts.

Q. Can you share the specific goals of your grant?

A. The first is to increase physical activity in the Providence Public School District (PPSD) and the second is to increase access to healthy foods and beverage at child care centers, hospitals, workplaces, government buildings and recreation centers.

Q. Tell us a little more about what you’re doing in the Providence Public School District.

A. I’m working closely with the PPSD Wellness Coordinator, Jennifer Quigley-Harris, who was hired to implement and communicate a very strong school wellness policy. I’m collaborating with Jennifer on the implementation of a Comprehensive Physical Activity Program for all elementary schools. Essentially, this means increasing student physical activity to 60 minutes per day through activities before, during and after school. It also include quality physical education classes, as well as family and staff engagement in the activities.

Jennifer and I are working with the Rhode Island Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (RIAPHERD) organization to run a Let’s Move, Physical Activity Leader (PAL) training for school staff. PALs will be trained how to increase physical activity, whether it’s how to be active during indoor recess or improving the quality of the physical education classes so the children are getting moderate to vigorous exercise.

I’m also working on engaging more parental support and involvement.

Q. Why is physical activity so important to school success?

A. Physical activity not only contributes to better health, but research has concluded that it also leads to better academic performance, increased focus and better classroom behavior.

Q. We’d like to hear what you’re doing with child care centers.

One important activity involves training child care center providers how to serve healthier food and beverages to the children in their centers. This is particularly aimed at centers receiving federal funds through Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which provides aid for the provision of nutritious foods. Under CACFP, providers are required to follow meal and snack guidelines and we are going to put that into action with some ideas for meal planning, shopping tips, and food preparation.

We hope to have the training at Johnson and Wales University, where they can see food preparation demonstrations. Part of the emphasis will be on cooking or providing foods with less sodium, fat and sugar.

Q. What will you be doing in hospitals?

A. We’d like to help hospitals assess the food they sell in their cafeterias and vending machines, and consider some changes toward healthier items. We can help them inventory their food and beverages and make recommendations on changes. This may include changing the environment so healthier items are in more prominent places (i.e. fruit at the register), foods are labeled so people know what they’re eating, or perhaps some healthy items being priced less than unhealthy ones (i.e. water is cheaper than soda).

Q. Are other organizations working with you on this?

A. Yes! I couldn’t possibly do this without the support and guidance of many partner organizations and individuals. The lead team consists of the American Heart Association, the Providence Healthy Communities Office and its Advisory Council, and the Providence Public School District Wellness Committee.

I’m also working with Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, Rhode Island Kids Count, the Rhode Island Departments of Education and Health, Health Care Without Harm, the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, BrightStars, the Rhode Island Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and many leaders at the local universities.  

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