FAYETTEVILLE -- School and community health leaders discussed improving children's health during the inaugural Northwest Arkansas School Health Summit, hosted by the Northwest Arkansas Council on Thursday.
Representatives from about 50 entities -- including major health care systems in the region, public and private schools, nonprofits, and businesses -- attended the event, according to Sarah Livengood, senior manager of community partnerships at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and steering committee chair for the health summit.
"Our goal is to bring together school and community leaders to really create change in youth health for the overall long-term improvement of Arkansas' health," Livengood said.
Much of the hospital health care sector focuses on either treating people as they get older or treating health conditions, according to Ryan Cork, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council's Health Care Transformation Division. The summit focused on addressing children's health issues in order to prevent problems 20 or 30 years in the future, he said.
The event featured workshops on topics such as preparing healthier school meals and diabetes management during the school day. Marshallese chef Judy Tatios gave a cooking demonstration designed to inspire Marshallese cuisine in school lunch rooms.
Attendees also participated in a design challenge to brainstorm solutions for childhood obesity, vaping and mental health, and to share their own successful strategies for dealing with the problems. The topics were chosen from the top concerns participants voiced while registering for the summit, Cork said.
Joseph Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and professor of pediatrics and public heath at UAMS, served as keynote speaker.
Thompson overlaid maps of Springdale and Fayetteville elementary school grades from the Arkansas Department of Education with census block maps depicting poverty levels, food insecurity and adults reporting mental distress to show the connection between the issues and poor academic achievement.
"You can't dissociate the local community health and economic exposures from the education outcomes we all want to have," Thompson said. "You are going to see this as a repeated effort. I think this is why the summit and its efforts are so important."
Judith Yanez, executive director of the Springdale-based nonprofit RootED, said she attended the summit because her organization already has been collaborating with UAMS throughout the pandemic on other health initiatives. RootED provides resources and experiences for Latinx parents, she said.
When the covid-19 pandemic hit, RootED initially focused on food insecurity and helping parents plan to send children back to school, Yanez said. However, she found mental health problems caused by stress and anxiety were a bigger issue.
"I think (the summit) is the beginning of conversations of mental health being discussed and the start of the conversation of how we can collaborate to support families through schools," she said.
Mary Ann Spears, superintendent of the Lincoln School District, said as an educator and a grandparent, she wants to see kids in her community making healthy choices. Lincoln schools have addressed childhood obesity and the need for better nutrition by providing ways for students to get more active and spend more time outdoors.
"I'll be very excited to participate going forward in whatever we can do to improve the health of our kids in this region," she said.
Cork said Northwest Arkansas Council's Healthcare Transformation Division is planning a second summit in October and hopes to host the events twice a year.