Healthy San Bernardino: Getting Healthier

Feb 6, 2012, 4:30 PM, Posted by

San Bernardino, Calif., the 100th largest city in the U.S., has several other distinctions: compared to the rest of the state, it has the worst food index (ratio of unhealthy to healthy food index), an average life expectancy that is eight years lower, a homicide rate that is 150% higher, the 2nd highest concentration of alcohol outlets and a 400-acre deficit of parks (two-thirds of residents don't live within a mile of parks or green spaces).

The county of San Bernardino doesn’t fare much better. In the 2011 County Health Rankings, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, San Bernardino ranks 50th out of 56 California counties in health factors and 55th out of 56 in physical environment factors such as access to healthy foods and air pollution days.

San Bernardino is in the midst of a public health crisis.

The Healthy Communities team at the Bernardino County Public Health Department set out to tackle that crisis—on a staff of three. “We knew partnerships would be critical,” said Evelyn Trevino, Program Coordinator for the program. Thus, the Healthy San Bernardino County Healthy Places Coalition was born.

One of the first steps was to conduct an environmental scan, the results of which provided many of the nuggets above, as well as information on parks and recreation space, the food environment, air and water quality and economic opportunities, said Mark Hoffman, Senior Planner for The Planning Center.

Peggi Hazlett, Assistant to the Mayor of the City of San Bernardino, lives and raises two children in the area, and has been committed to making it a healthier, happier place to live for her own family and future generations. It’s a constant struggle, though. The week of the conference, there were three homicides within a 20-block radius, including a stray bullet that slayed a 15-year-old. “Welcome to my world,” said Hazlett.

Hazlett said it’s been important that the Coalition resides outside the Mayor’s office, allowing it to be nimble and sustain longevity through changes in administration. Over 70 percent of the city’s budget goes toward crime prevention—understandably, in a city that also has the state’s highest rate of calls to child protective services. However, keeping Healthy San Bernadino outside the city also keeps the funding separate so the coalition can preserve funds for healthy community efforts.

In a year, the Coalition built two community gardens, accrued more than 50 partners, completed an environmental scan, walkability assessment and photo voice project, and partnered with other agencies so EBT and WIC cards could be used by low-income residents at farmers’ markets. Hazlett also brokered a creative joint use agreement to build a Veterans Empowerment Garden in an abandoned, defunct lot. The group generated a $15,000 grant from Home Depot and through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Veteran’s Administration, returning vets will staff and maintain the property, setting the site up for sustained longevity.

Sixteen of San Bernardino’s 24 cities and towns are now on board to implement Healthy San Bernardino on a local level, focusing on prevention, addressing upstream determinants and creating a shift in culture, said Trevino.

Trevino quoted the seminal Institute of Medicine report, “It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behaviors so easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment conspire against change.” San Bernardino has made the first important steps toward changing those forces for the better.

>>Recommended reading: Read a report from Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with direction and technical assistance provided by San Diego State University, on the health benefits of neighborhood parks.

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