Farmers’ markets, report cards and Nerf Wars: Sexsmith earns the Overall Healthy Community Award

It’s a Tuesday evening in June, and residents of Sexsmith are gathered in the local curling arena. But they’re not here to throw rocks or sweep. Instead, families are wandering past vendor booths—tasting artisan breads, picking out fresh vegetables and purchasing farm eggs.

The town, located in northern Alberta just off Highway 2, has a population of almost 3,000 and only a small corner grocery store, so residents jump at the chance to shop goods that are locally made, baked or grown. But it’s so much more than a sports complex turned farmers’ market.

“It’s become a gathering place,” says Melody Sample, the town’s wellness coordinator and market manager. “It’s in a central location and we’ve made it friendly. There’s music on, a kids’ area and it’s big enough to stand around and chat. It’s become a community hub.”

Creating this sense of communal belonging is an underlying goal of much of the work in Sexsmith, explains Melody. And the Sexsmith Wellness Coalition, created back in 2012, doesn’t just bring individuals together through activities like the farmers’ market. They also purposefully partner with key groups to enhance health in many spaces and forms.

“Working in groups is so much better than working on your own. Each group brings their own resources and we make each other better,” says Melody.

In 2018, the coalition partnered with Alberta Health Services and the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health to complete a nutrition benchmarking report card. The project graded Sexsmith on food options for children from birth to age 18.

The team reviewed what food was available in schools, grocery stores, restaurants and the food bank in Sexsmith, as well as the advertising and education in those environments. The report was released in August 2019, with the town receiving a grade of C, above the provincial average of D.

“When we worked on this project, we all sat in the same room and talked about what was working and what wasn’t working,” explains Melody. “I think because it was seen as a community effort and not just one organization or school in particular, the information was regarded as helpful.”

The town’s emphasis on collaboration and partnership aligns with the goals of Communities ChooseWell and is one of the reasons Sexsmith is so engaged with the program, adds Melody. In the past year, the coalition connected with another ChooseWell community, Pincher Creek, who started a youth program called Nerf Wars. Melody adapted the initiative to Sexsmith’s context and launched it in the summer of 2019.

On Wednesday afternoons, the local hockey arena transformed into a battle zone, with goggled kids camped out behind boxes and barriers, shooting foam darts with Nerf blasters. The town provided the program and equipment for free to ensure access for all community members.

Nerf Wars is just one of the many initiatives that encourages the residents of Sexsmith to stay active and engaged. From PreK Playtime to youth cooking classes to a seniors’ community kitchen, the coalition is committed to creating partnerships that benefit people of all ages and abilities.

Their hard work has been so effective that the Town of Sexsmith won the Overall Healthy Community Award from Communities ChooseWell in 2019. Melody says the town’s success is undoubtedly due to collaboration. Her advice?

“Go find allies, whether it be volunteers or council people or your town administration. Go find people that share your vision. You’re much stronger with like-minded people around you.”