Woman and child shopping for healthy food at farmer's market

Michigan Fitness Foundation Captures “Ripple Effects” to Increase Healthy Eating and Physical Activity


Lila Gutuskey came to Wilder Research in search of a new way to share her organization’s impact. With an evaluation tool called Ripple Effects Mapping, the Michigan Fitness Foundation found a new way to capture the impacts of their statewide work on healthy eating and physical activity in Michigan.

The Michigan Fitness Foundation is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) program through the Michigan Department of Helath and Human Services. SNAP-Ed helps people learn about nutrition, how to make their food dollars stretch further, and low-cost ways to be active. Through SNAP-Ed, the Michigan Fitness Foundation provides funding to more than 50 local and regional organizations, including public health departments, schools and community-based organizations. It uses multiple tools to evaluate the impact of this collaborative effort on organizations and communities as well as changes in behaviors among people who take part in programming funded by it.

“With our SNAP-Ed work, we have a unique role of aggregating data across programs to look at statewide effects,” says Lila, an evaluation specialist and director of the Public Health Fellow Program at the Michigan Fitness Foundation. The results are reported to the federal SNAP-Ed program as well as back to the organizations that receive funding for use in local decision making. “We’re giving partners back their data and giving them information to make community-level decisions,” she says.

Lila became interested in Ripple Effects Mapping because community partners wanted to share effects of their work and impacts on their communities that went beyond what the foundation was already reporting. “We were looking for a new way to share their story,” Lila says.

Ripple Effects Mapping Helps Understand Intended and Unintended Impacts of Complex Projects

Ripple Effects Mapping is an evaluation tool used to better understand the intended and unintended impacts of a project. It is a facilitated discussion with staff and local stakeholders that creates a visual “mind map” to show links between program activities and resulting changes in the community.

Wilder Research has used Ripple Effects Mapping in projects involving community based organizations, public agencies, tribal communities, foundations and more, including work similar to the project that the Michigan Fitness Foundation was interested in, says Amanda Hane, a research associate at Wilder Research who has special expertise in the evaluation tool.

A previous project involved evaluations at the two- and five-year mark of a major health equity initiative in Minnesota. “It was a powerful tool to show the early ripples and also what needed to be in place later to have some of those stronger policy, systems, and environmental change impacts,” Amanda says.

Results Come from Carefully Facilitated Discussions

Wilder worked with the Michigan Fitness Foundation on a ripple effects mapping project involving two-hour sessions in eight regions across Michigan. Groups of 11-21 participants met in each region for a facilitated discussion about the successes and challenges of their SNAP-Ed work to support healthy eating and physical activity through direct education and policy, systems, and environmental change efforts.

Because the Michigan Fitness Foundation’s work involves community partners who may not know about each other’s work and how their work fits in with the organization’s broad efforts, Wilder Research worked with the Michigan Fitness Foundation to ensure that the right mix of participants were invited and that they had the information they needed for a successful session.

Members shared impacts they had seen in their organizations and communities. Their information appeared in real time on a screen, giving participants a chance to further review and discuss their contributions. The conversations were then captured and analyzed by Wilder Research in findings for each region as well as in aggregated, statewide findings.

Results Provide Another Tool for Participants to Share Their Story

The Michigan Fitness Foundation plans to use the results of the sessions to further its work at a broad level, and participants will receive reports from their region to highlight the impact in their communities. “We want them to have something that is another tool in their toolbox for talking about the great work that they do,” Lila says.

Beyond the written reports, the sessions provided opportunities for participants to reflect on their work together, says Amanda, the research associate from Wilder Research who worked on the project. “Depending on the region, organizations had varying experience collaborating and learning about each other’s work,” she says. “Taking time to reflect and develop relationships can be a benefit of this process.”

Lila plans to continue to use Ripple Effects Mapping because Wilder Research trained the Michigan Fitness Foundation’s evaluation team in the tool. “We really liked that that was a development opportunity for us as well,” she says. “This was a new way for us to engage with our partner programs and our stakeholders and to look at our successes and challenges in a new way.”

Photo credit: Michigan Fitness Foundation


What Are the Ripple Effects of SNAP-Ed Funding in Michigan?

Food Pantry Conversations Change

In food pantries and the emergency food access environment, conversations [have] changed from hunger [and] providing any food to increasing the presence of fresh produce and access to healthy foods.

–Southeastern Michigan (Group A)

Source: Ripple Effects of  SNAP-Ed in Michigan: Key Findings from Ripple Effect Mapping Discussions among SNAP-Ed program stakeholders, January 2020

Connecting Physical Activity and Mental Health

A couple of participants are having a blast with the aqua fit class or work with a personal trainer, saying that ‘my life has changed for the better.’ Other people are like, ‘I'm just loving it.’ Others have mentioned weight loss. We hear all this research that physical activity is related to mental health but it can be abstract. We wouldn't have gotten involved in this work without our relationship with SNAP-Ed.

–Upper Peninsula

Source: Ripple Effects of  SNAP-Ed in Michigan.

School Garden Yields Fresh Food for Families

One of our schools has created a mini-farm through our farm-to-school project. It has certain times where community members can harvest the food... Some of it is going to food pantries or kids are taking it home.

- Northern Lower Peninsula

Source: Understanding SNAP-Ed Impacts in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan: Findings from a Ripple Effects Mapping Session supported by the Michigan Fitness Foundation. December 2019.

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