By Mary Velan
Many municipalities across the country are developing programs to keep local residents healthy and safe. These initiatives aim to address community health and safety issues from multiple angles and by providing increased access to key resources.
The Yolo County Children’s Alliance in West Sacramento, California, is a community-based nonprofit organization took on the task of creating a safe place for local children to play outside of school hours. The community housed school playgrounds that were restricted when children were not in school, as well as unused sports fields also under school district management. The city of West Sacramento, however, was not planning to build a new park with a secure walking bath to the unused lot due to financial and political obstacles, The Institute for Local Government reported.
To better connect the citizens of West Sacramento to local leaders and decision makers, the children’s alliance facilitated meetings between parents, the school superintendent and a city council member. Many members of the community did not have faith in the local government leaders to accomplish the goal of repurposing the land for a children’s park. The face-to-face meetings helped the local government build a rapport and trust with residents. Parents were able to explain how and why they wanted the parks to be improved for their families – many of which needed translators as English was not their first language.
The meetings were so productive the city council decided to launch a collaborative effort with the school district and local community stakeholders to build a park and playground, The Institute for Local Government reported.
While the meetings were taking place, the Yolo County Children’s Alliance was busy finding ways to fund the parks project and trail leading to the facility. The nonprofit approached Kaiser Permanente and asked they visit the site to understand the project and the needs of the community. Kaiser Permanente was providing funding for the Healthy Eating Active Living Cities Campaign throughout California to support cities working to improve the physical environment and help residents be more active and eat healthier foods. As a result, Kaiser Permanente offered the nonprofit a $150,000 grant for park improvements, The Institute for Local Government reported.
To jumpstart the project, the nonprofit and local school district opened the disused playing field and used the grant to build a path around the park and install a playground. All the work was accomplished by volunteer residents dedicated to making the community safer and healthier. The city was able to accomplish its goal without tapping into taxpayer funds through cross-agency collaboration.
Another example of collaboration spurring change can be found in Brownsville, Texas – one of the poorest metro areas in the country. According to the city commissioner, 67 percent of Brownsville residents are diabetic and 80 percent are either obese or overweight. To overcome the community’s health disparities, the city launched a multi-agency effort to improve wellness. Officials understood that public health is directly connected to income, jobs and education. The city needed to deploy a community outreach campaign that explained how everyone must work together to create sustainable health solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported.
To better educate the public on the current state of health, the University of Texas School of Public Health came to the city to share local health data that had been collected in 2001 at neighborhood meetings. Once residents understood the need to reduce rates of obesity and overweight they teamed up with more than 200 organizations across several sectors to form the Community Advisory Board. The group was tasked with examining community health risk data and work with partners to develop solutions to drive better health. The board aimed to:
- Deliver the message of wellness into homes and businesses
- Affect policy and environmental changes by voting and leadership
- Engaging residents and partners in each step of the campaigns
Concurrently, the city and large employers developed the Imagine Brownsville plan that evaluated the environment, health, education and other factors to continually assess the community’s needs. Imagine Brownsville and the Community Advisory Board then established a set of shared measurable goals including:
- Fostering active transportation
- Promoting healthy eating
- Increasing access to healthcare resources
As a result, the cross-collaboration has passed health-promoting policies, installed new sidewalks, increased bicycle safety amenities and revitalized the downtown community, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, there is a significant drop-off in health when comparing affluent to low-income communities. One of the main causes of high overweight and obesity rates in Chattanooga is a proliferation of food deserts in low-income neighborhoods. When grocery stores are few and far between, residents often cannot take a car or cab to get to stores offering healthy options. Instead, many residents are purchasing their food from local small businesses – often mom and pop shops – that struggling to supply fresh produce, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department officials explain many grocery store chains chose not to open stores in neighborhoods with low median incomes. This drives up the number of corner stores and fast food restaurants that set up shop in their place. These neighborhoods then report high rates of obesity and diabetes, lack of physical activity and prolonged poor nutrition – all of which are linked to several chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. These conditions force already struggling communities to spend even more on health care costs as a result. Medical spending for obese people, for example, is $2,741 greater than for people of normal weight, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
It can be difficult to take public transportation long distances when grocery shopping for a family. One way the city is addressing the food desert situation is by bringing fresh food sources into the low-income communities directly. The local YMCA has sponsored produce trucks to make rounds through food desert neighborhoods to offer fruits and vegetables to residents. The YMCA is also offering advice and financial assistance to local store owners interested in purchasing fruits and vegetables from local farmers, The Chattannooga Times Free Press reported.
In addition, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank has launched a program at a local elementary school that teachers second and fourth graders the importance of healthy food choices. The program focuses on understanding what foods are good and bad, and sends kids home with nutritional snacks to share with their families over the weekend. The health department is also funding dozens of community gardens that teach children how to grow healthy food and become more engaged in their dietary choices, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.