With more than 500,000 residents, Omaha easily claims the title of Nebraska’s largest city. During a growth spurt in the 1950s, its middle class left the older eastern end of the city for the developing suburbs to the west. A diverse, largely lower-income population filled the void. Today, this section of Omaha remains has a median household income that is about half that of households in the rest of the city and surrounding Douglas County.
The economic imbalance is even more pronounced for the African-American families concentrated in the northeast neighborhoods and the Latino families who live mostly in the southeast neighborhoods. Many in both communities are headed by a single female parent, and many live below the federal poverty level.
The city’s eastern end confronts greater environmental hurdles, too—the loss of once-thriving farmers' markets and neighborhood grocery stores, as well as few safe walking or biking routes for youth to use in their neighborhoods.
The health consequences of these factors are reflected in various statistics: More than half of the area’s children report that they rarely eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and three-fourths don’t walk or bike to school because few schools are connected to bike paths and safe walkways. But the bottom line is body mass index (BMI) data for adolescents, and more than 40 percent of minority students in the county have an unhealthy BMI, compared with one in five White students.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, Omaha will target youth in the eastern third of the city. A partnership called Live Well Omaha Kids (LWO Kids) will build on existing programs, including an effective social marketing campaign that promotes healthy living as an important component of community pride.
LWO Kids’ initiatives will work to improve access to affordable healthy foods, especially fresh produce, through community gardens, farmers' markets, grocery stores and vendors participating in the federal WIC program. Land-use polices and strategies to encourage those gardens also will be pursued.
The projects to increase children’s physical activity will focus on connecting schools in the area to bike paths, trails, green spaces and parks.
Leading these efforts is Live Well Omaha, an umbrella organization of more than 35 groups. It boasts an eclectic mix of members—from city and county agencies to the University of Nebraska College of Public Health to the United Methodist Ministries Big Garden and International Mountain Biking Association.
“Omaha has an incredible sense of community pride and quality of life,” project director Kerri Peterson said. “By making the case that active living and healthy eating play a significant role in the health of children, we can harness that community support for our goals.”