Improving the health and well-being of North Carolinians is at the heart of the missions of both Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina’s (BCBSNC) and its independent philanthropy affiliate the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. Addressing these issues, however, requires a level of community investment and strategy far beyond promotions and programs, as brand placement and event participation will not create the long-term sustainable changes necessary to improve health at a population level.

Recognizing the need for a more substantive strategy to impact the health of North Carolinians, both entities are committed to investing in tangible outcomes, to help create an environment where healthy options are available to all.

One example is BCBSNC’s support of FoodCorps’ expansion in North Carolina which is helping build a local food infrastructure by investing in strategies that impact both community and industry.   FoodCorps is a national nonprofit that helps children build positive relationships with healthy food through hands-on lessons in the garden, kitchen and classroom, and works with schools to get local food into the cafeteria. This community investment is projected to help 40,000 children access healthy, local food and will open cross-sector conversations to determine how to make healthy food more accessible across the board.

With an eye on prevention, and to address physical activity in low-income communities while engaging its broad employee base, BCBSNC also has led a multi-year partnership with KaBOOM!, a national organization focused on increasing play through the construction of community-built playgrounds. Through this collaboration, BCBSNC has spearheaded the creation of six play spaces, providing an avenue for 750 employees to dedicate 4,500 hours of service in the communities in which they live, work and play. These playgrounds have created a legacy of new play opportunities for more than 6,000 children in North Carolina while serving as a point of pride for a growing and community-oriented workforce.

Outcomes-focused community investment also drives the BCBSNC Foundation, which over nearly 15 years, has invested more than $100 million into North Carolina communities.  In addition to a commitment to increasing access to healthcare for the state’s most vulnerable residents, BCBSNC Foundation has made significant progress in expanding avenues to physical activity and supporting the growth of a healthy, sustainable food system.

Within the realm of physical activity and food, one key area of focus has been proactive investments in early childhood, with the intent of establishing a trajectory of a lifetime of healthy behaviors.  Over time, this strategy has evolved from a focus on programs to one that centers on the environments, policies and practices that shape the childcare experiences for young children.

For example, in 2010, BCBSNC Foundation joined the North Carolina Partnership for Children to create Shape NC, a six-year, multi-million dollar initiative to increase the number of young children in North Carolina starting kindergarten at a healthy weight.  The multi-prong effort layers best practices in early childhood with strong network building, technical assistance and community change strategies. Through the statewide Smart Start network, Shape NC brings together the policy and practice strength of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care (NAP-SACC), with the established environment changes from Preventing Obesity by Design (POD), and the programming and training skills of Be Active Kids®. These evidence-based programs have shown strong outcomes when independently integrated into the childcare setting. Shape NC is integrating these strategies to create model centers of best practice in physical activity, play, healthy food, and healthy environments.

Shape NC is the first statewide initiative in this space to combine multiple successful strategies and to implement both a top-down and bottom-up approach to improve the health of children in childcare, their families and their communities.  In its first three years, ShapeNC has expanded into 27 North Carolina counties, spurred a 46 percent increase in the number of Shape NC children provided with servings of fruit two or more times a day, a 28 percent increase in vegetable consumption in participating centers and saw 85 percent of children in Shape NC programs engaging in at least 90 minutes of developmentally appropriate movement and play daily.

From food access and availability, to safe and appropriate play spaces, to comprehensive early childhood interventions, health is vitally important to the people of our home state and therefore so too is our commitment to tangible investments in making it better.

Kathy Higgins is Vice President, Corporate Affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and President of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.