Six powerful Kansas health foundations make collaboration part of the remedy

The Sunflower Foundation is striving to make heroes of residents in rural areas of the state hungry for ways to avoid being drawn into a food desert.


Under the Healthy Eating: Rural Opportunities program, the Topeka-based nonprofit earmarked $230,000 to sustain access to grocery stores and the full range of fresh, healthy food options for families. Retaining or reviving local grocery stores is the goal of HERO pilot projects in Allen, Crawford, Harvey, Hodgeman and Marion counties, the cities of Plains and St. John, and two projects serving a 10-county area in northwest Kansas.

“More and more Kansas communities are losing ready access to nutritious foods, with residents facing round trips of an hour just to buy fresh vegetables,” said Billie Hall, Sunflower’s president and chief executive officer. “Over time, the consequences of families having less healthy diets will be stark.”

Sunflower Foundation is part of a philanthropic coalition featuring Kansas Health Foundation, of Wichita; Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, of Kansas City, Mo.; REACH Healthcare Foundation, of Merriam; Wyandotte Health Foundation, of Kansas City, Kan.; and United Methodist Health Ministries Fund, of Hutchinson.

The organizations operate independently with their own boards and budgets, but all engage in health-related collaborations.

Bridget McCandless, president of Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, said the partnerships generated leverage to tackle Kansas’ health and wellness challenges. For example, HCF can’t alone solve delivery of mental, oral and health care to vulnerable populations.

“Through collaboration we can explore creative ways to address some of the toughest health issues facing our communities. Often, our combined voice helps us tackle issues we wouldn’t be able to on our own,” McCandless said.

The Alliance for a Healthy Kansas put the collective weight of all six foundations behind a campaign to expand eligibility for Medicaid health insurance to 150,000 working poor Kansans.

In 2015, the battle took shape with the coalition arguing expansion of KanCare could mitigate financial strain on rural hospitals, stimulate the economy by adding jobs and offer a hand up to citizens in need. The 2017 Legislature responded by passing an expansion bill. It was vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback, and the GOP-controlled House narrowly voted in April to sustain the veto.

“There have been many opportunities over the years to work together to improve the health of Kansans, like we have with Medicaid expansion,” said Steve Coen, president and CEO of Kansas Health Foundation. “Our collaborative partnerships in Kansas are really unique and quite enviable.”

Kansas Health Foundation, or KHF, developed a program known as GROW, or Giving Resources to Our World. Its goal is development of community foundations, and work began in 1999 with a dozen organizations holding $19 million in assets. KHF provided $30 million and leveraged $28 million in other gifts. A decade later, the 12 foundations had assets of $95 million.

Kim Moore, who served until recently as president of United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said the organization’s footprint extends beyond Hutchinson into the western two-thirds of the state. The fund is dedicated to overall access to health services, but now concentrates on emotional development of children younger than 6 and best practices for breastfeeding.

“The fund has also worked throughout Kansas to support universal screening for early childhood social and emotional development issues and to build capacity for early treatment where needed,” he said.

Wyandotte Health Foundation president Cathy Harding said the nonprofit invested heavily in Wyandotte County safety-net clinics serving low-income, uninsured individuals.

In a recent change, she said, the foundation moved to address “adverse childhood experiences” linked to abuse and neglect, mental illness and substance problems. Exposure to these environments raise the risk of children falling short in educational attainment, enduring obesity or chronic diseases and confronting teenage pregnancy or jail time, she said.

“There is a significant body of research that shows kids, especially those zero to 3, with multiple adverse childhood experiences will have a number of challenges,” Harding said.

REACH, led by president Brenda Sharpe, invests in quality, affordable health care services in a six-county service area. Dependable access to primary care, oral health and mental health services to the uninsured is a point of emphasis.

In November, Sharpe said, REACH granted $1.4 million to 27 care, advocacy and policy organizations that are “leaders in strengthening the health care safety net, advocating for consumers and providing valuable information and assistance to individuals who are uninsured and medically underserved.”



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