The Sussex County YMCA has launched initiatives promoting better nutrition and exercise using a $10,000 grant from Atlantic Health System to teach children to grow vegetables and to inspire shoppers to increase their daily steps.

In the spring, students in the YMCA’s after-school care program at Franklin Borough School planted cherry tomatoes, basil and lettuce in using aeroponics, a gardening method that requires no soil. A vertical growing system called a Tower Garden was moved to the YMCA for the summer to teach Y campers.

“Kids are excited to see things grow, and how easy it is to happen,’’ said Sussex County YMCA Executive Director Jennifer Gardner. Children documented their observations, made hypotheses, and used creative writing to describe their perfect garden. “This gives greater opportunity for children to incorporate fresh produce into their diets.” 

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The Sussex County Y secured the two-year New Jersey Healthy Communities Network grant and has partnered with the Franklin School District, Franklin Mayor Nicholas Giordano, Walmart in Franklin for the health initiatives.

To promote physical activity, the Y is working with Walmart to create 14 ‘Healthy Parking Spots’ at the far end of the store lot. The Y will soon install special signs that indicate the distance from those spaces to the entrance so shoppers know how many extra steps they take. 

That initiative builds on prior efforts to inspire activity. The Y has added exercise stations on walking paths in Hardyston Township, and launched an awareness campaign about the benefits of walking, providing maps and other resources to encourage residents to walk in the numerous parks throughout Sussex County, Gardner said.

“The Healthy Parking Spots Program will show county residents that they can increase their physical activity in small increments without much effort, and reap health rewards,’’ Gardner said. The Y plans to expand the Healthy Parking Spots program to other retailers and develop incentives for shoppers, Gardner said.

The gardening program will incorporate lessons on nutrition when it returns to Franklin Borough School in the fall. Plans calls for launching it in Hardyston and Blairstown schools.

New Jersey Healthy Communities Network (NJHCN) in 2016 awarded $860,000 to the Sussex County YMCA and 42 other organizations to support environmental and policy change initiatives promoting healthy eating and active living. The East Orange YMCA and West Essex Y also received grants.

NJHCN is a collaboration of funders throughout the state who support efforts to develop healthy environments for people to live, work, learn and play.

As a branch of the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, the Sussex County Y is committed to tackling obesity and other societal problems.

“We are grateful to Atlantic Health System for the funding, and honored to be part of an important movement, creating a foundation upon which people can embark on healthy lifestyles, no matter their financial circumstance,’’ said Metro YMCA President and CEO Richard K. Gorab.

 A second year of NJHCN funding is contingent on the first year’s success, Gardner noted.

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