Jefferson County, Ala.

    • January 11, 2010

Seven-year-old Sarah lives in East Lake, a small community several miles east of downtown Birmingham. Urban flight hit hard here, and the neighborhood has been in decline for decades, beset by high rates of poverty, above-average unemployment and under-performing public schools.

Sarah and her little sister, Tamara, share a modest apartment with their mother, whose two part-time jobs put the family just above the federal poverty level. Their apartment is only a few blocks from a large recreational park, but the park’s poor condition and fears about crime keep them and other families away. Sarah’s elementary school is also close to home, but cracked, uneven sidewalks and heavy traffic make walking dangerous.

So Sarah’s mom drives her to school every morning and along the way takes her sister to day care. Both girls get little to no time for active play during their day.

In the afternoon, Sarah goes to Tamara’s program until their mother picks them up at 6 p.m. Most of the time, dinner is a stop for fast food. It’s cheap and easy, particularly since there’s no grocery store in their neighborhood.

Across Birmingham as well as the surrounding Jefferson County, there are many children like Sarah and her sister, who face greater health challenges primarily because of where they live. Their families don’t have much access to affordable nutritious foods. Unsafe streets, unfriendly parks and urban crime keep them indoors despite generally sunny, warm days.

It’s not surprising that childhood obesity rates in both the city and county are higher than the national average for all age groups. And among African-Americans, who make up 75 percent of Birmingham’s 218,000 residents, rates are higher still.

The severity of the situation has prompted a determined response by local leaders. With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, a coalition of more than 60 partners is aiming to create “a climate for change.”

This new Health Action Partnership, led by United Way of Central Alabama, plans to:

  • Involve residents in a community-wide assessment of how neighborhoods, schools, after-school care providers and work sites can better support healthy eating and physical activity
  • Promote safe greenways, bike lanes, sidewalks and trails to connect neighborhoods
  • Support development, distribution and vending policies that will encourage more stores to offer nutritious foods
  • Work with local farms and faith-based organizations to expand community gardens and create opportunities for healthy foods in under-served areas
  • Help day-care centers and after-school programs provide healthy foods and more physical activity by expanding their resources, developing an obesity-prevention health curriculum and training staff on best practices.

The diversity of its partners—from faith-based groups to planning agencies, foundations to urban farms—will be crucial to the initiative’s success, said project director Harry Brown.

“Community collaboration is woven into our social fabric, and the key is to align everyone’s efforts around a shared vision for a healthier Jefferson County,” he said. “We’ve learned to work together because no one organization has the resources to be successful on its own.”

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