fitUnited Pittsburgh is an initiative of the United Way of Allegheny County focused on using community outreach to improve the health of local children and motivate their healthy habits. fitUnited has spearheaded such programs as the Homewood Summer Snacks program and Build-A-Bike as well as workplace wellness activities that set healthy examples.

Happy young family riding bikes

“We have two primary objectives: to increase physical activity, and to improve nutrition for children from birth to age 12 in Allegheny County. We focus mainly on youth-serving organizations to help equip them to facilitate these objectives, but we are in a unique position because we have relationships with both non-profit and corporate entities,” explains Christine Grady, program director at United Way.

The Origins of fitUnited

fitUnited began in October 2012 as a three-year initiative to mobilize local businesses and community groups around child wellness, including nutrition and physical activity, with a goal to fight childhood obesity in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Through its expansive relationships across the region, the United Way is able to bring together a wide variety of for-profit and non-profit organizations for this common cause. Highmark joined in 2013 as a key funding partner, along with Eat’n Park and over 350 other partner organizations. More than 70 partners are considered “youth-serving” organizations that care for close to 50,000 children. “It’s really a way for us to reach a large number of children at the places where they spend time,” notes Grady.

How Highmark Fits In

Preventing childhood obesity has long been a passion for Highmark, so when our company was approached by the United Way, it made sense to sponsor fitUnited.

Atiya Abdelmalik, Director of Community Programs and the Highmark point-of-contact for fitUnited, explains that a huge part of Highmark’s role is to get the word out and support the other partner organizations:

“We are focused on volunteering and supporting those community agencies. How do we leverage the expertise of Highmark employees to go out and volunteer at those community events? How do we advocate for a healthier workplace? How do we help other smaller organizations adopt these healthy practices? As a partner, we are always looking for ways to be invested and set an example. It’s about mobilizing an entire community.”

As one example, in September 2014, Highmark and volunteers from several other partner corporations participated in United Way’s Build-A-Bike event. fitUnited partner organizations were challenged to assemble bicycles in a friendly competition, which were then presented to children who attended the event.

Another example is the Homewood Summer Snacks pilot program. The Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh is a “food desert,” which means it has no local grocery store. Parents, grandparents and caregivers do not have a convenient way to purchase fresh, non-processed food. Many children in the neighborhood with working parents are cared for by neighbors or relatives during non-school hours, who receive a Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) subsidy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist them in purchasing food for the children in their care.

The Homewood Summer Snacks program used the subsidy to deliver fresh meals daily to homes of caretakers for the same cost as less healthy processed food. In addition to the health benefits of these meals, the home delivery enabled caretakers to spend more time with the children on structured activities and field trips. The meals were prepared by Pittsburgh Community Kitchen and delivered by employees or drivers from the Homewood Bible Center.

fitUnited is hoping to build on the success of this program and launch another pilot this year. “Truly, Highmark makes it possible for us to do this work. It’s not only the funding, but the leadership capacity and expertise that we can tap into,” says Grady.

Getting Social to Help Kids Get Fit

Highmark promotes fitUnited activities and child wellness through regular Facebook and Twitter posts as well as a Pinterest board. If you’re looking for ideas to get your children moving or eating healthier, and also to set a good example for them, take a look.

Megan Emmons from Highmark’s social media team is a member of Highmark’s internal fitUnited committee and is charged with keeping fresh content coming on social media. “There’s not enough publicity about the good things they do, and what they have accomplished, so we do our best to share it,” says Emmons.

Mission Possible

Internally at Highmark, there are a number of other initiatives that support the fitUnited mission.

For example, Lauren Chanadet, Health Strategy Consultant, represents Highmark’s Employee Wellness area on the fitUnited committee and is tasked with developing programs like “Fit in 15,” which kicked off in January.

Fit in 15 encouraged employees to exercise at least 15 times for at least 15 minutes at a time and anyone who completed the challenge was entered into a drawing to win a fitness device of their choice to help keep them motivated to move. Each week, a different activity was highlighted, with video lessons that can be shared with family members to get everyone moving.

fitUnited is a unique program that focuses not on the childhood obesity epidemic, but on what we, as adults, can do to help children make healthy choices. When children learn healthy habits at a young age, those habits are likely to ”stick” throughout their lives.