Dawn Nelson loves to eat vegetables and says she grows 95 percent of the vegetables she eats herself—spinach, lettuce and snow peas in spring; tomatoes, green beans and peppers in summer, to name just a few. Thanks to the unusually high raised-bed gardens at her apartment complex, Nelson is able to do her own gardening despite difficulty bending after multiple spine surgeries.

“Gardening had always been a hobby of mine, and I thought I would have to give it up,” she says. “Having raised beds that are three-and-a-half-feet high is great for disabled people. I’m out there every day, watering the plots, picking vegetables. Another lady comes out with her walker to do her gardening. There’s also a small greenhouse where we can grow things in colder weather.”

Nelson moved into her rent-subsidized apartment in Greenbridge, an unincorporated suburban area just outside Seattle, a year ago. Greenbridge is one of several affordable housing communities newly developed by the King County Housing Authority with an eye toward creating a healthy green built environment for all its residents. In addition to community gardens, the Greenbridge campus features an elementary school, Head Start, Boys & Girls Club and a library, as well as play areas, parks and walking paths. A public health clinic, a food bank and a community center offering free exercise classes are just a few blocks away.

In King County, more than 54 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Among county adolescents in grades 8, 10 and 12, 85 percent do not meet physical activity recommendations, and almost 72 percent do not consume five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

For Nelson and her neighbors, many living on fixed incomes, the community garden just footsteps from their building makes it possible to enjoy fresh produce that’s both affordable and convenient.

“It’s the freshest you can get,” says Nelson, whose abundant garden means fewer trips to the grocery store. “I don’t have a car so going to the store is a big hassle, four hours on the bus—two in each direction with all the connections I have to make.”

Seattle–King County was one of the first nine sites around the country selected for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that advances community-based solutions that will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. The program—which encompasses 49 communities—focuses on changing policies and environments to support active living and healthy eating among children and families, placing special emphasis on reaching children who are at highest risk based on race or ethnicity, income or geographic location.

In redeveloping Greenbridge, a site originally built as temporary housing during World War II, there was a unique opportunity to address some of the factors that make it difficult for children from lower-income families to maintain a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.

“We really listened to the needs and concerns of residents,” says Linda Weedman, resident services director at the King County Housing Authority. “We did extensive surveys before beginning construction and also collaborated with another public health initiative which had already set up 10 focus groups based on gender, age and language. We tried to use these existing community meetings, to get on their agendas, rather than set up separate meetings. It was a very integrated, efficient process that kept residents engaged and helped prevent ‘survey fatigue.’”

Over 15 languages other than English are spoken in the predominantly immigrant community, including Vietnamese, Somali, Cambodian and Eastern European languages. Outreach to those communities is provided in their native language, from surveys and fliers to interpreters at meetings. The gardens, too, are tailored around ethnic food preferences and include popular Asian vegetables such as bok choy and daikon, and herbs like lemongrass and Thai basil.

Greenbridge currently has 778 residents, but once fully built it will provide homes for over 3,000 people. Today, approximately 25 percent of the residents are children or adolescents (age 17 or under) and that number is expected to ultimately go up to 50 percent. They and their families can often be found outdoors, walking to and from school, playing in the playground and helping out in the gardens. Forty eight individual plots are distributed among four community garden locations on the Greenbridge campus. As part of the HKHC grant, additional garden spaces are being identified and developed. In the meantime, residents often share their harvest informally with neighbors.

Building community has been an important consideration for the King County Housing Authority because when people know their neighbors, they feel safer and more comfortable spending time outside.

“A walking path winds through the whole length of the development and will soon be extended to reach a nearby shopping area with Asian markets,” says Weedman. “We’ve been intentional about not creating sprawl, but rather a more livable, walkable environment that feels safe and inviting.”

Nelson has a small dog and takes him out for walks without worry, even at night, thanks to well-lit pathways and the presence of other residents. Twice a week she attends exercise classes that she would not be able to afford if they were not available for free at the community center. She also enjoys the diverse cultural celebrations that take place regularly in the community center, with food, music and traditional folk dancing.

“All these things help with both physical and mental health,” says Nelson. “This used to be a bad neighborhood, but now it’s a great place to live.”

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