The vision of Hamilton County Public Health is to transform the lower-income neighborhoods of Cincinnati and four other communities into places where residents can easily find and afford fresh fruits and vegetables, where children and families have safe spaces to walk, play and be active.
Making these changes will require sustained and coordinated efforts throughout the county, which is why public health has joined forces with the Nutrition Council and YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, Center for Closing the Health Gap, Children’s Hospital Medical Center, local school districts and area elected officials. Collectively called Hamilton County: Eating Smart and Living Fit, this partnership is ready to turn its vision into reality.
“A lot of significant organizations invested in preventing childhood obesity have come to the table to coordinate efforts,” project director Stacy Wegley said.
Because Hamilton County is home to 48 political jurisdictions, each with its own decision-making powers, collective action can be difficult to achieve. But on an issue like childhood obesity, “we need all of these important voices,” Wegley continued. “When everyone is pulling in the same direction…that’s what creates enough momentum to have real change.”
In early 2009, Cincinnati created a task force to identify ways to assist residents in buying affordable healthy foods. With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the partnership wants to expand the task force’s early efforts by conducting a broader community food assessment and making policy recommendations to local officials through an ongoing Food Policy Council.
It also intends to take advantage of federal nutrition programs by expanding the number of farmers' markets that accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards and WIC vouchers for fresh produce purchases and by working with local vendors to get more healthy foods into after-school programs.
Ohio currently uses less than 30 percent of its available Safe Routes to School funding, and none of those dollars supports projects in Hamilton County. One strategy for helping children become more active is to work with schools and communities to access this funding for construction of sidewalks and paths. The partnership also wants to ensure that fields, playgrounds and gyms at schools are open and accessible to the public—not locked after school as they’ve frequently been in the past.
There are some daunting hurdles. About 14,000 more county residents were living in poverty in 2009 than in 2008. Agencies and nonprofits reported significantly increased demand for food assistance. Within the initiative’s target communities—home to about 360,000 White and African-American residents—other indicators are similarly troubling.
In Forest Park, for example, more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In Lincoln Heights and Lockland, not one grocery store is in business, so many residents shop at corner stores where the window advertising typically promotes cigarettes, beer and ice cream.
“Having the community engagement at all levels of our work is extremely important,” Wegley said. "Together we can create sustainable changes that have a positive impact in the community for years to come.”