Healthy Communities: The Building Blocks of a Culture of Health

Aug 25, 2014, 9:15 AM, Posted by

Girl with helmet riding bike near school.

What do Corvallis, Ore.; Baldwin Park, Calif.; and Buffalo, N.Y. have in common? It certainly isn’t their weather.

Hint—the commonality is something much more relevant to RWJF’s newly refined mission. These three cities are building a Culture of Health for all their citizens. They are tapping into the skills and resources of a diverse group of partners to ensure everyone has access to healthy choices. It’s their collective efforts, along with dozens of other communities supported by the Foundation’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) program, that make me so optimistic about our organizational goal.

My strong belief that environments—physical, social and educational—play a prominent role in our individual health and well-being is what initially drew me to RWJF. So, in 2008, I excitedly embraced the opportunity to be the national program officer for HKHC, which addressed the root causes of childhood obesity by transforming the physical activity and food environments in which children and their families live, learn and play.

Without us necessarily realizing it at the time, HKHC started “planting the seeds of a Culture of Health” and served as an early model for our current work. Its approach to the childhood obesity epidemic is what the movement is all about—addressing health in a way that is more than just the treatment of a disease.

As our HKHC investment wraps up, it’s a perfect time to celebrate those communities that have supported and nurtured healthy places, kids and families.

HKHC’s umbrella organization, Active Living By Design, developed three substantive reports and resources from the program that comprise lessons learned and provide compelling community examples. While the reports contain many great nuggets of information, I want to highlight one of my favorite themes from Growing a Movement: Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Final Report.

Giving locals a real role and voice are key ingredients in establishing a Culture of Health. Here’s how HKHC made it happen:

  • HKHC worked with local governments to make community engagement more of a priority. In many instances, elected leaders and/or departmental officials developed new procedures to accommodate, and even require, greater participation from local residents. This is one place where Corvallis, Ore., excelled. HKHC helped “Creciendo en Salud,” the local partnership, focus on building the capacity of youth and low-income residents to advocate for health opportunities in their neighborhoods. For the first time, in many cases, Latino and low-income residents testified at city council meetings, city advisory groups and school board meetings.
  • HKHC-supported communities also made sure to prepare their residents, so they could engage in civic-planning processes and improvement projects in a meaningful way. Preparation took a variety of forms, ranging from periodic educational sessions addressing healthy eating and active living issues to a year-long curriculum for equipping residents with the skills they needed to participate in city council meetings and, in some cases, even serve on boards. Locals also learned about a range of topics including government services, political processes, land use planning, utilities and economic development. For example, the HKHC project in Baldwin Park, Calif., worked with local partners to launch an initiative solely focused on strengthening resident leadership. It produced results. Resident advocates, armed with cameras and assessment tools, led a grassroots campaign for healthier corner stores and prompted the development of a nationally recognized Complete Streets policy.
  • The best part of HKHC’s work with local residents is that they collaborated with both adult and youth leaders. Kids and teens were able to have a seat at the table and share input that really shaped the changes made in their communities. In Buffalo, N.Y., HKHC helped facilitate the creation of a youth advisory committee that led to youth seats on three different city-wide councils. The youth committee members also participated in the city’s zoning and land use change process, and they hosted a youth training session to educate high school students about land use planning and effective participation in public meetings. Another successful effort resulted in a policy change that will remove the old, unhealthy vending machines throughout the school district.

I am certain that the HKHC local partnerships, especially resident supporters, will continue to serve as leaders and resources to the Culture of Health movement that is occurring in communities across the country. The childhood obesity epidemic didn’t happen overnight, and we’re not going to reverse it overnight. Similarly, realizing our Culture of Health vision is going to take time. It’s also going to take partnerships like the ones HKHC developed. This is an opportune time to leverage the investment we made over a decade ago to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic and to create a Culture of Health everywhere. Corvallis, Baldwin Park and Buffalo are just the tip of the iceberg. How can we replicate their achievements, and the achievements of the 46 other HKHC communities, in cities and towns around the country?