United Way Santa Cruz: Partnering for a Healthier Community

Jun 13, 2012, 2:19 PM, Posted by

Jóvenes SANOS community bike ride with the Mayor of Watsonville

In 2004, the United Way of Santa Cruz County, the Children’s Network and several other community based organizations convened over 150 local agencies representing a wide array of sectors to create a comprehensive plan to address the rising rates of childhood overweight in Santa Cruz County.

Go For Health! partners include schools, parents, health care professionals, local media, local markets/businesses, city planners, community based non-profits, and local and state policy-makers—as well as the affected youth themselves—working together to effect long-term change in reducing the rates of obesity by enacting changes in the community such as improving healthy food offerings at restaurants and markets, and increasing transportation options.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Megan Joseph, director of community organizing, and Kymberly Lacrosse, community organizer, both at United Way of Santa Cruz County, as well as Lynn Robinson, Santa Cruz City Council Member and Santa Cruz County Metro Board Member, about the initiative.

NewPublicHealth: How did Go For Health! come about, and how did you come to focus on prevention and creating a healthier community?

Megan Joseph: Go For Health! was convened by the United Way of Santa Cruz County, the Children’s Network and a few other organizations in 2004 who were starting to notice the upward trend in childhood obesity across the county, which wasn’t different from what was happening across the nation. Our community came together to start taking some real steps to address the issue. Representatives from over 150 local agencies gathered in that first year to start looking at best practices and what was really working to address childhood obesity beyond a nutrition education and direct service approach. That’s when they started to learn about a cross-sector approach and the idea of environmental prevention, which takes a unified, big picture strategy to address such a large public health issue that has so many pieces and different causes.

NPH: You were able to convene 150 different agencies and many of which were from different sectors. Why is that so important to think about bringing in different kinds of partners to the table?

Kymberly Lacrosse: When you’re looking at a problem in a community that affects so many different people in so many different areas, it’s really important to have as many perspectives as possible in the collaboration and participating in problem solving. We believe that really helps look at it on a deeper level and you’re more likely to have greater success in long-term sustainable changes. Having schools and local community organizations and community members and county and city government and many, many, many more in collaboration has definitely been important.

Lynn Robinson: From my perspective, and being someone that is on the Santa Cruz City Council, to feel like I have a partnership role in this as an elected official does two things. One, where it’s appropriate or where we can, we can help with resources. But also, partnering across sectors makes a statement about who your community is and that you recognize the issues in your community. So even if it can’t be a monetary contribution, there’s still a lot of different ways that you can be participating.

As these interesting partnerships develop, the work blossoms. It becomes something bigger than you imagined because everyone sees the role that they get to play—as small or as big as it might be. Every one of those roles are integral to success. All the pieces together, as Kymberly described, makes it work. There’s a value in that because you never know how successful the end result can truly be until you plug in that one more partner.

Kymberly Lacrosse: Your partnership can be so powerful when the people that are partnering are really invested and committed, because there’s a deeper commitment and a bigger vision that everybody is participating in and working towards.

NPH: What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned in fostering these kinds of committed, engaged partnerships?

Megan Joseph: A particular example in Watsonville is a youth leadership component there called Jóvenes SANOS [“Healthy Youth” in Spanish]. I just saw a clip from the city council meeting where they passed the restaurant ordinance there and a couple of the council members in that meeting spoke very directly to the power of the youth, who are their constituents and the people that the problemof childhood obesity is affecting the most. The youth brought the problem to these policy-makers and asked them to use their power to help do something about this issue. That really created some champions in the city council because they had real people bringing real stories to them and showing them that they could make a difference. They have been strong partners ever since.

>> Watch a video of Jóvenes SANOS at work.

Lynn Robinson: I can speak to that too, and using that same example. I sat with Jovenes SANOS and asked them a couple of questions and saw how deep their commitment is and how engaged they are. I’m almost tearing up as I sit in my own little office here because it is so inspiring. You recognize if there’s something I can do to help them, they’re going to take this a long way. It’s going to really transform their lives as they see that their action can make a difference, and it will change the lives of the people that really need this in their lives to make healthy choices. To me, there isn’t anything better than that.

NPH: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of the city council and basically what you worked on with the Santa Cruz County Metro Board?

Lynn Robinson: The youth have created a new Healthy Vending policy that they will bring to the metro board that sets reasonable expectations about changes that we could make throughout our transit system for healthy choices for all of our patrons. In theory the policy is focusing on increasing choices for youth, but it really benefits everybody. It’s really exciting because they’re going to make a model policy that’s not been used before in the transit agencies and that will probably go statewide and beyond. That is pretty powerful stuff.

NPH: What were some of their recommendations?

Kymberly Lacrosse: We are following recommendations we’ve made through our Healthy Corner Markets project, where we worked with markets on carrying healthier products and placing them near the register. We also passed the Healthy Restaurant Ordinance in Watsonville last year, which was also one of the first of its kind in the nation. It says that all new and incoming restaurants within the city of Watsonville have to have a certain number of healthy options on their menu. We use a point system to do that and most of them are pretty easy to accomplish, like having a low fat dressing or a whole grain bread and things like that. We have also looked at other Healthy Vending policies where vending machines carry at least 50 percent healthy options. We are looking at carrying some of these best practices and policies over into the Healthy Vending policy with the Metro Board. We’re trying to be very mindful of the economic climate, partnering with vendors and market owners to make this policy work for them, while also working to keep the healthy options affordable.

NPH: Can you talk a little bit about United Way’s role as a convener?

Kymberly Lacrosse: One is building relationships through one on one conversations and meetings with people that we think would be interested in partnering with us on an issue. Initially there’s definitely a time investment in building these relationships and letting people know what the issue is. When you take the time to really sit down that definitely makes a difference.

It’s also about making it personal. We try to connect an abstract problem that maybe people aren’t consciously thinking about to real life. That makes it real.

Megan Joseph: We really see community engagement as being central to our work. We have our three goal areas of financial stability for all families, health and the success of our youth. So many issues in the community cross all three areas so we really see we need to build those relationships to address all of the issues we work on. If we build one relationship in one area, we know that relationship will sustain and be able to be leveraged when we’re trying to do a different project. We really see ourselves as the neutral conveners of the community around issues and rely on the wisdom of the community to then direct how we address those issues.

NPH: How do you see your approach to healthier communities as a way to reduce health disparities?

Megan Joseph: We are currently dealing with a report that just came out today, for example, that showed us childhood obesity statistics by city, which is the first time that’s ever been done. It showed that our childhood obesity rates in Watsonville, which is in Santa Cruz County, is at 49.3 percent and if you look at the rest of the County it’s at about 31 percent. That’s a huge disparity, and it just further concretizes why we focus a lot of our funding dollars and a lot of our attention on Watsonville. It’s a countywide issue but those kinds of numbers are what really tells us that yes, Watsonville needs extra attention. Jovenes SANOS is one way we’re empowering the very youth who are affected by the issue the most, by taking an approach of not “let’s help the people that need it,” but “how can we empower them to take the lead and solve this problem?”

NPH: What have been some of the successes so far?

Megan Joseph: Our Community Assessment Project involves a community survey every other year and really gives us in-depth information about where our community is on a lot of different measures. Something that we saw in the 2011 report was that vegetable and fruit consumption by Latino people in Santa Cruz had increased by 12 percent from the year before, which was a huge testament to the work we’re doing to try to make healthy food more accessible. We aren’t seeing the numbers in the actual obesity rates yet or the diabetes rates yet, but we’re seeing it in some of the other behaviors that could lead that way.

NPH: And what’s next?

Kymberly Lacrosse: We’re continually working on engaging people at the community level to build capacity and create strong leadership, something that we talk about often. When we’re working on a problem, we’re really working on creating momentum and a movement so that it is sustainable and it does continue above and beyond us.

Lynn Robinson: There’s a whole other community piece to that about being with the farmers and being with people that are growing the food. I think that’s another partnership that we should start talking about.

Overall,I look at what is getting accomplished and what is getting done and it’s amazing.

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