Impact in Texas

Voices for Healthy Kids
One of the most powerful tactics for getting decision-makers to act on important issues is activating their constituents. Recognizing that fact, Texas health advocates at the American Heart Association upped the ante by bringing those constituents to the capitol to educate state lawmakers about grocery access in Texas.

Texas Advocating for Heart Day, which took place on March 18, drew just under 70 volunteers who took the time to come to Austin to educate legislators and their staffs about the Texas Grocery Access Investment Act. The measure would create a program to provide grants and loans to retailers to open new grocery stores or renovate or expand existing stores in underserved areas.

Currently, Texas has the lowest number of grocery stores per capita in the United States. The result is that more than 3.4 million Texans do not have easy access to retail sources of fresh fruits and vegetables in their communities, critically important tools in the effort to combat childhood obesity and to improve health.

To help drive home the lack of easy access to grocery stores, the volunteer grassroots advocates wore t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Closer to My Grocer” during their visit to the capitol. Among them were 25 youth from throughout the state, many of whom live in those underserved areas. The youth joined volunteers from the American Heart Association’s You’re the Cure network, and together they provided an inspiring and effective voice in the Texas capitol. Financial and technical assistance from Voices for Healthy Kids helped make the advocacy day a reality.

Victoria Nelson, grassroots director with Voices for Healthy Kids at the American Heart Association in Texas, says that the day was extremely effective because of the real stories the volunteers brought to the capitol. “Our advocacy staff can talk to legislators, but it does not have near the impact as when volunteers and constituents do so,” she says.

Among the youth advocates were culinary arts students from Ft. Worth who are learning to cook healthy foods at school, but have difficulty finding the ingredients in their neighborhoods due to a lack of grocery stores. “The kids all wanted to share their stories and the legislators and their staff really listened. One Dallas legislator was very impressed, so impressed that he ended up pledging to support the measure although he had been undecided before,” says Nelson.

While the Texas Advocating for Heart Day was a great success, it took an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work. Planning that started in January quickly evolved into a non-stop, to-do list geared toward turnout, logistics, collaboration with other organizations, preparation of fact sheets and talking points, social media posts, advance promotion, training for participants and the arranging of 65 meetings with legislative offices.

“We are thankful to Voices for Healthy Kids, not only for funding the Texas campaign staff who were critical to helping organize and execute the logistics, but also for the input and advice the national team provided,” says Nelson.

For those planning to do similar grassroots advocate visits, Nelson has three pieces of advice. The first two are to build advance relationships with volunteers and other organizations, and to get advice from someone who has coordinated similar events to help prevent overlooking small but important details.

The third piece of advice? “Don’t forget to have fun … it’s really important that you provide your volunteers with an enjoyable and impactful experience,” she says.

“It was an incredible honor to work with the volunteers, and especially the kids …The kids really wanted to have an impact, which they had. But the real impact was helping the kids become grassroots advocates, which will last forever,” Nelson says.

*The activities described in this story were funded primarily by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as part of its support for Voices for Healthy Kids. However, to the extent this story includes lobbying, no RWJF funds were used for lobbying.