Redefining normal: Strathcona County works to bring back healthy habits

In Strathcona County, municipal staff are finding small but significant ways to encourage residents towards active living, healthy eating and play.

The county recognized a large-scale societal shift away from these routines, and decided to find convenient ways to rework healthy habits into their community, explains Jenn Wilson, a recreation specialist and the Communities ChooseWell Champion in Strathcona County.

“It starts with listening to what residents need—what their challenges or barriers are—and helping them overcome or work through them by introducing ways to eat healthy and be active that fit their current lifestyle. It’s not about making a ton of big changes. That’s just too overwhelming,” says Jenn.

Accessibility is something the county takes seriously, recognizing that many people have trouble making the healthy choice not because they are resistant to change, but because the right choice is not always the easiest or cheapest.

As Jenn mentioned, Strathcona County staff start by listening to residents and finding out what activities or healthy foods they’re interested in. When it comes to prioritizing play, municipal staff listened to and supported a passionate community group who wanted to bring a mobile adventure playground to the county.

In partnership, the county and community group provided a loose parts, mobile playground that set up in different locations at set times. Residents donated everything from tires to two-by-fours, building a collection of items that encouraged risky play—an experience key to healthy development.

“The project was really well-received,” says Jenn. “The group even educated parents on risky play, asking them to avoid telling their children to ‘be careful,’ and instead letting them play and experiment.”

In addition to this free initiative, residents could also enjoy free recreation opportunities at Ardrossan Regional Park, where a new spray park and playground opened in 2019.

The county is also making strides in offering healthy food choices through their garden program, which has boxes throughout the municipality and at schools.

Strathcona County specifically placed boxes in high-density areas where residents may not have room for a garden. They also created higher boxes and wheelchair accessible gardens so older citizens or those with reduced mobility could fully participate.

Municipal staff has also led education nights, from canning workshops to information on harvesting, with the goal of not just providing healthy food, but showing residents how to continue these practices.

“It comes back to that idea of changing culture,” says Jenn. “If we can show people how to do this, the hope is that they’ll be motivated to change their behaviours at home.”

These efforts, and more, won Strathcona County a Communities ChooseWell Developing Healthy Policies Award in 2019.

“ChooseWell really has a great reputation, so it’s an honour to receive this award,” says Jenn. “At the end of the day, it’s about keeping things simple. As an organization, we’re trying to create change, but we know it’s not going to happen overnight. So the more we can lead by example, the more people will see healthy eating and physical activity as the norm.”