Forty miles west of Chicago lies Kane County, home to more than 500,000 people. Most of them live in smaller cities strung along the Fox River, which two decades of rapid growth has turned into a dense urban corridor of housing, strip-mall development and traffic congestion.
The population boom was driven by young families, many of them first-generation immigrants. Between 1990 and 2007, the county’s Latino population more than tripled, and today, Latinos comprise 28 percent of Kane’s population. One in four residents over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home.
County leaders have recognized the myriad growing pains that accompanied this expansion and are taking steps to make Kane safe, healthy and livable for current as well as future residents. In particular, the Health Department is working with local partners to reverse childhood obesity and reduce chronic disease in the community.
Making Kane County Fit for Kids (FFK), the county’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project, will expand that effort. Its goal is to support healthy eating and active living, especially among vulnerable, underserved families in three areas. Together, the cities of Aurora and Elgin and three smaller mid-county municipalities that are collectively called the Tri-Cities account for almost 75 percent of the county’s population—and more than 95 percent of its Latino and African-American residents.
The project will develop a Fit Kids 2020 blueprint to guide future planning on Safe Routes to School, encourage walking and biking for exercise in these areas and create safe places for children and adults to enjoy physical activity.
“Where we live has such a powerful influence on our health,” project director Paul Kuehnert said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our plans for new roads, new schools and new business here in Kane have a positive impact on the health of our community.”
As part of FFK, local health advocates are teaming up with planning, transportation and economic development staff to craft a plan for smart growth. They will address public health, housing, transportation and sustainable agriculture and focus on ensuring a healthier built environment by updating the local comprehensive land use and transportation plan.
Kuehnert stressed that local residents will offer critical perspective to these conversations: “We need to build trust, especially with those who live in Kane’s most under-resourced neighborhoods. We want to offer them a seat at the table.”
To address the immediate needs of residents who can’t afford fresh foods, FFK will plant community gardens throughout the Fox River Valley. This strategy already has shown great promise. In summer 2009, 45 youth tended and harvested a local garden plot. For many, it was their first time eating food they had grown.
Kuehnert was encouraged by the enthusiasm he witnessed. “It’s a taste of what’s to come as we scale up and offer new opportunities to more of Kane’s young people,” he said.
And the project’s first-year goal has ambitions to match: Making at least 1,000 20-by-20-foot plots available to lower-income families.