Columbia, Mo.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

    • December 2, 2008

Columbia is a college town of 84,000 located in the center of Missouri, nearly equidistant between Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east. Though it is a predominantly White community, five of its neighborhoods have distinctly different demographics—much greater racial and ethnic diversity, higher rates of poverty and crime and more students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in the public schools.

Columbia’s Healthy Environment Policy Initiative (HEPI) Partnership, led by the PedNet Coalition, Inc., is a long-time group of grassroots advocates, public health officials, public schools, academics and leaders from government and the faith-based community. Together, members have successfully pushed new street and sidewalk design and school wellness policies, a precursor for the lasting, systemic changes they now seek.

The partners will target the five neighborhoods with their Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities funding. Two issues rank highest on their list: increasing the availability of affordable, nutritious foods for children and families there and making area streets and parks more conducive to walking, bicycling and safe play.

Much of their work will be done through a new “Healthy Environment Policy Board” to advocate for local policies addressing food, activity and transportation. It will be aided by technology: a new, multilayered GIS (geographic information system) mapping application that will allow the partnership to combine population and community data and better analyze where grocery stores, walking paths and bus routes are located. The system could be immediately useful in helping to promote community gardens, a prime policy goal.

How will the partnership know when its actions are really making a difference?

"When discussion about this vision of a truly healthy community becomes commonplace," said project director Ian Thomas. "When the idea of using public policy changes to create a healthy environment for all children is covered regularly in the local media."

While this kind of conversation is an essential component of change, Thomas knows it is likely to trigger opposition. "To do what we're going to try to do with this program, we're going to ruffle some feathers," he said. "But with our evidence-driven arguments and strategic alliances in place, we will be able to overcome these challenges."

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