Buffalo, N.Y.

Community is among 50 sites making critical changes through national initiative to prevent obesity.
    • January 11, 2010

Buffalo is a city in the midst of revival, with a recently opened contemporary art museum, renovated architecture bearing Frank Lloyd Wright’s name and a developing waterfront along Lake Erie. At the same time, it is also a city grappling with acute poverty, disparities and poor health among many of its 260,000 residents.

Statistics quickly illustrate this side of Buffalo’s story. It has the third highest poverty rate among major U.S. cities. Almost 60 percent of adults and children are obese or overweight, double the New York state average. Vacant lots and neighborhood deterioration discourage residents from walking or being outside, and predominantly African-American neighborhoods, whose residents represent 40 percent of the city, have fewer than half the number of supermarkets that predominantly White neighborhoods do.

With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) has joined nearly half a dozen key partners—the city, the University at Buffalo, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and WNY, the Massachusetts Avenue Project and Green Options Buffalo—to help make it easier for residents to eat healthy foods and be active.

“We do face challenges, but the timing of this effort is right,” project director Michael Ball said. “Buffalo is bucking the national trend economically. We’re experiencing job growth, and there’s more investment in this city than there has been in a decade. We have the opportunity to make some real changes in the types of investments happening here.”

The aim of the Buffalo initiative is to build on and strengthen the current efforts of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board and to form a local Food Policy Council. These two groups will be central to prompting policy changes and specific programs designed to make Buffalo a healthier city.

One of the advisory board’s goals is to implement a recently adopted Complete Streets policy that will, among other things, support construction of bike lanes and sidewalk improvements to encourage physical activity. The food council will work to bring healthier foods to more people by eliminating policy barriers, partnering with the economic development field to provide loans and incentives to small grocery stores for equipment purchases, setting up local farmers' markets and creating community gardens.

“Having the Board and the Council up and running will be huge wins, because those efforts are sustainable,” Ball said.

Beyond its formal partners, BNMC can count on support from school halls all the way up to City Hall. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is a strong advocate for programs that promote healthy eating and active living, and he recently launched a bike-rack program in the city’s commercial district.

And by teaming with the Massachusetts Avenue Project, BNMC will involve local youths in both the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board and the Food Policy Council. In BNMC’s view, providing Buffalo’s youngest residents with leadership and organizing skills is important for fostering buy-in from the larger community and ensuring that the initiative’s efforts have staying power.

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