North Little Rock Mayor: It's About Giving People a Reason to Want to Live Here; Health is Added Inspiration

Jul 6, 2012, 5:19 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Pulaski County, Ark., home to the city of North Little Rock, ranked 21st out of 75 counties in the state in the 2012 County Health Rankings. North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays recognized need to take action to improve the health of his residents, so he and his colleagues began an employee wellness program in earnest. As Mayor Hays and Alderman Beth White wrote in a recent blog post, “The benefits of employee wellness programs are clear: reduced healthcare costs, increased productivity and healthier employees. With those benefits in mind, the City of North Little Rock is an example of how a city government’s commitment to health and fitness benefits both employer and employee The city’s Fit 2 Work program offers employees healthier workplaces that offer greater options for getting and staying healthy, including healthier vending machines and discounts at community centers that offer physical fitness programs.

Fit 2 Work is just one component of the overall Fit 2 Live program, which aims to create an environment that empowers the community to adopt healthy life choices. This initiative, supported by grants from the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education & Families, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a CDC Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant, includes safe routes to school efforts, joint use agreements, built environment improvements such as walking and biking trails, and school wellness improvements.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Mayor Hays and Fit 2 Live Coordinator for the City of North Little Rock, Bernadette Rhodes, about their efforts to create a healthier city.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us about the Fit 2 Work program for the City of North Little Rock.

Mayor Hays: I have been here at City Hall about 23.5 years. I’m very proud of a lot of things we’ve done, but this has to be pretty much at the top of the list. These are things we’ve long understood to be a priority. I’ll give you a little bit of background—75 percent of my budget goes toward employee benefit costs. The old adage of “follow the money” is absolutely true. I’ve got 900 folks who work directly for me. We, like many in the country, are experiencing fairly significant increases in premiums in our medical costs. We tried to be as sensitive to preventive efforts to keep our employees healthy as we could be. About eight years ago, the city wrote a check for $300,000 to form its own health clinic. We wanted to have health screenings, and options for our employees with a great deal of accessibility to annual physical exams, screenings, blood work and more.

We are focusing on our workforce to give them the options to be healthy. We’re also trying to be a little creative with our employees to allow them to join a 10-week Weight Watchers program—that was 16 pounds ago that I was a beneficiary of that program—as well as discounts at our excellent community and senior centers.


North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays

NPH: The Fit2Live initiative includes a broad set of programs to create a healthier city. Why is it critical for a growing city to make health a priority?

Mayor Hays: We are serious about both our employees as well as our community having healthy options at vending machines, through the use of walking paths and in other aspects throughout the community. About 20 years ago I started building trails in North Little Rock because I wanted to make sure it was a place people wanted to live. We had been flat in population since the 1960s. People were moving to the suburbs, not unlike what was happening all over the country, but I made the decision that I wanted to do things to make people want to live here. We started out with trails, improving our parks and building sidewalks. I’m proud to say some of the dirt paths I walked through as a kid are now sidewalks and trails. We felt that competing for young people’s time was something we need to do, and what better way to do it than creating options for recreation—so we put a basketball court under an interstate overpass. We lit it, and sometimes we have midnight basketball.

Our inspiration was more geared toward wanting people to live in the community and giving them reasons to do it than it was because of the health epidemic. Now the health side of things has certainly taken on an added inspiration over the last five to 10 years. We like to think we were ahead of the game. We’re excited about what’s happened and where we are.

We received a $1.5 million Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant from the CDC to fight obesity and other health-related issues. We of course are partnering with our high schools and other organizations throughout the community to make this happen.

>>Read more on the North Little Rock CPPW grant.

NPH: What changes are you hoping to see in six months or a year?

Mayor Hays: The thing I want to ensure is that what’s in my head has been institutionalized so it’s not up to any one person. We need to ensure the foundation has been laid, and we do feel we’re there. We’ve got a built environment committee when it comes to utilization of trails and buildings and other things that together create a healthier community. We’ve got the Fit2Live leadership team.

All of this will be carried on in this city after my term is up because of the foundation we’ve laid and the enthusiasm of the staff and leadership. That together with the funding we secured has laid the groundwork to make healthier lifestyles and choices an institutionalized part of the way our city works.

NPH: Who were some of your important partners, and what is the overall role of partnerships in your work?

Mayor Hays: We formed a coalition of teams, and collectively if you’re at the table you have more likelihood to buy in to the outcome, and that’s been a big part of the success of our programs. I would include our employees themselves as one of our key partners, as well as the state, the Department of Health, Chamber of Commerce, Department of Parks and Recreation and others.


Bernadette Rhodes, Fit 2 Live Coordinator for the City of North Little Rock

Bernadette Rhodes: The neighborhood associations have also been critical in getting the word out about what we’re doing. For example, the built environment committee organized a tour and discussion of a new bike and pedestrian trail that’s going to be paved and built in an abandoned railroad spur.

Hays: These pedestrian trails are not only good for physical activity, they also promote interaction. Social integration is absolutely critical. People need to see each other in ways other than hollering at each other through a car window.

NPH: What are some of the milestones in what has been achieved with the CPPW grant?

Rhodes: We’ve had the grant for almost two years now. In our community action plan we identified quite a few ways in which we wanted to combat obesity. The first one is in schools. We partnered with the school health coordinator for the district and worked with her to revise the school district wellness policy and to draft a district employee policy. Those policies have been drafted and reviewed by the superintendent and approved to go on to the school board for a vote. It strengthens the existing wellness policies a lot. Schools were required to have a wellness policy, but a lot of times they were just bare bones. For example, vending machines would have to be at least half healthier options, and the signage on the front of the machine has to be water or 100% fruit juice and not a soft drink. It also says food is not to be used as a reward with the kids. Another big thing is implementing SPARK PE, a national evidence-based program that incorporates physical activity and nutrition education, and that was implemented across the board with all PE teachers as well as city community after-school programs.

The second thing is healthy food options. We passed guidelines through the City Council to encourage all departments within the city to change the way they offer food, whether it’s in meetings or catered events and of course vending machines. We adopted a model called “Go, Slow, Whoa” and per the guidelines, half of those foods offered should be “Go” or “Slow.”

The third thing is joint use agreements. We had some money to renovate existing facilities around the city—community centers, parks and schools. For example, a lot of elementary schools had basketball courts but the nets were gone and there was no way to play on them. We went through and refurbished all of those so they’re usable. We’ve also been ordering signs to put up in the parks and around walking trails to say they’re open for use to the public at certain times, and one lap equals a quarter of a mile—to ensure people know these facilities are available to them for use.

NPH: How do you measure progress?

Rhodes: We have an evaluator who’s been working on getting hard numbers on all of our vending machines. He created a baseline and went around and categorized existing foods in the vending machine using go, slow, whoa. After these guidelines are implemented, he’ll go around and measure the changes that have taken place.

With joint use agreements, the evaluator will measure the quality of those facilities and the usage both before and after. They have a tool that allows you to observe the usage of the facility and the type of physical activity they’re engaging in.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.