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Successful Walk to School program provided long-term benefits

Ecology Action Centre calls cuts shortsighted

by Moira Donovan

“When other provinces are looking to you because you have success and it’s seen as best practice and then all of a sudden the government cuts your funding, it’s shocking.” Cuts to a Walk to School program coordinated by the Ecology Action Centre leave parents scratching their heads.
“When other provinces are looking to you because you have success and it’s seen as best practice and then all of a sudden the government cuts your funding, it’s shocking.” Cuts to a Walk to School program coordinated by the Ecology Action Centre leave parents scratching their heads.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - On Tuesday, ParticipACTION released a report giving Canadian children and youth a failing grade for physical activity. Being active, the report notes, has been linked not only with better physical health, but better emotional and mental health as well.

So it was with some surprise that Ecology Action Centre (EAC) learned its longstanding walk and bike to school programs – and particularly the school travel planning part of that program – would be getting a 100% cut in government funding.

“There was no hint at all that these funding cuts were coming and it was just quite a blow,” says Janet Barlow, Active Transportation Coordinator at the EAC. “We know [the program] was having a positive impact.”

Although the cut of $105,000 was announced in April, along with the other changes contained in the provincial budget – including significant cuts to many non-profits – Barlow says the EAC has waited until now to publicize the change in the hopes that Leo Glavine, Minister of Health and Wellness, could be persuaded to change his mind.

Now that it’s been confirmed that no such change is forthcoming, Barlow says the cut is no less confusing.

This is particularly true because the school travel planning, which works with 24 schools across the province to develop safer and more convenient routes for children to walk and bike to school, is the only program of it’s kind in Nova Scotia, Barlow says.

Barlow isn’t suggesting that of all the organizations to get funding cuts, this program should have been an exception, but she considers the extent of the reduction to be surprising.

In the twelve years it’s been running, the program has encouraged active transportation through initiatives like the walking school bus - which had groups of children walking to school together, led by an adult.

It also compiled data, helped get crossing guards in high-traffic areas and assisted schools in applying for funding for bike and scooter racks, among other initiatives. The EAC reports a 4.5% increase in walking and biking to and from school at participating schools.

Barlow points out that the walk to school programs directly fulfill the mandate of the province’s THRIVE strategy – a plan to improve the health of Nova Scotians through exercise and healthy eating.

The EAC’s active transportation programs, including school travel planning, were celebrated in THRIVE’s 2014 Report. Barlow says she was also invited to speak in Quebec last month about success stories from the program.

“When other provinces are looking to you because you have success and it’s seen as best practice and then all of a sudden the government cuts your funding, it’s shocking.”

Steve Eaton’s children go to Basinview Drive Community School. Eaton is part of Basinview’s parking committee, which was formed after the catchment area for that school expanded.

The increase in school bus traffic left little space for parents to park while dropping off their children, meaning that children were being dropped at the side of the road, or walking in front of driveways. The committee decided the best way to deal with the situation was to promote active transportation, Eaton says, and they reached out to the EAC to develop a plan through the organization’s walk to school programs.

Although the committee approached the EAC in the hopes of solving a logistical challenge, Eaton thinks that using the walk to school programs is as much about re-routing parents’ thinking as it is about redirecting traffic.

“Most of [the students] are situated within less than a kilometer of a school and could walk,” he says. “So a lot of what we’re trying to do is change people’s attitudes.”

Eaton says it was hoped that the program would encourage people to think differently about the risks and rewards of active transportation.

“A lot of people feel that their kids are too young to walk to school…the more [children] that walk, there’s safety in numbers and that’s part of what we’re trying to promote.”

Unfortunately, funding for was cut before the programs at Basinview could get fully off the ground. Eaton says one of the worries is that in the absence of such programs, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement, the argument that infrastructure for cars should be expanded will have more sway.

Tony Kirtsis, spokesperson for the Department of Health, said in an email that “difficult decisions had to be made” about which organizations would have their funding cut and that the Department continues to support active living through other measures, such as funding for after school programs and Sport Nova Scotia.

But Barlow says that without attention paid to the effects of inactive lifestyles, the province is missing an opportunity to offset trends that could carry a hefty price tag in the long-term.

“It’s short sighted to not pay attention to the health promotion… and that’s certainly what the walk to school is for kids, you get that habit going as they’re young, and they’ll carry it on into adulthood,” she says. “We can’t keep spending the health care dollars that we’re spending right now, we have to redirect some of that funding to prevention and that’s what this is.”

Glavine also said that many students walk to school without any programs in place, and that teachers and parents need to encourage healthy living.

Sean Flemming, whose children attend Westmount Elementary School, says that with the school day already so full, it’s important to have opportunities for children to learn about active living outside of the classroom.

The teachers…don’t necessarily have enough time to educate the kids about traffic safety and sustainability and things like that.”

In the absence of programs that encourage children to get outside and get active on a regular basis, Flemming isn’t sure that they’ll develop those habits on their own.

“They’re not walking to school, their parents are driving them and they’re just learning ‘well when I’m older I’m going to have a car and I’m going to drive too’…it’s not encouraging them to have a healthy attitude,” he says, adding that the walk to school programs allowed kids to see that there’s an alternative.

“They see their friends [walking] and they say ‘hey well this is actually pretty fun and it’s good for me too’, so it’s a win-win.”  

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