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Communities Recognized for Work to Improve Public Health: Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge

Posted: April 11, 2018

Communities are going above and beyond to focus their work around local social determinants of health as part of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Now, midway through the two-year effort, the challenge is recognizing some of the communities that have seen results already.

On Jan. 31, the Aetna Foundation announced that 10 communities participating in the challenge were receiving Spotlight Awards, $25,000 prizes to boost continued efforts to making healthier and more equitable communities, and an additional five were receiving an honorable mention prize of $10,000 for the same.

The Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge is a partnership of the Aetna Foundation, APHA and the National Association of Counties, helping to lift the public health work that is making a difference in 50 small- to mid-size U.S. cities and counties. Since 2016, participating organizations have received funding to make their health efforts reach those whose health needs are greatest.

“Where a person lives has a profound impact on how they live — particularly when it comes to their health,” said Mark Bertolini, MBA, chair of the Aetna Foundation and chair and CEO of Aetna, in a news release. “The Spotlight Award recipients are outstanding examples of how important progress can be made when communities work together to look at the biggest issues facing their neighborhoods and develop healthy, home-grown solutions.”

The award recipients are already seeing their hard work paying off. Debbie Sims, vice president of the East End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone and co-founder of the group’s Pop-up Market & Café of Connecticut’s Bridgeport Coalition United to Reach Equity, knows their efforts are making an impact: She has lived in the neighborhood served by the coalition for 30 years. She said the East End of Bridgeport is the longest-standing food desert in Connecticut, lacking a full-service grocer for 35 years. There, the rate of adults with overweight or obesity is 87 percent.

But that could be changing, as the coalition helped to implement a small community-run grocer, addressing not just access to healthy food, but also community cohesion, job training, business development and violence prevention. Local kids participating in gang violence prevention programs have helped to set up the shop, while union workers have volunteered construction efforts and health departments have provided refrigeration equipment. Groundbreaking could begin soon for a permanent shop.

To expand on that work, Sims said a local church has started growing fresh vegetables as part of its community feeding program, working the produce into Easter events, kids’ activities and healthy, budget-conscious cooking demonstrations.

“We realize that will take time, as we raise funds and work through permitting and the like,” Sims told The Nation’s Health, but noted big changes are already felt within the community. “I am so proud of the work that we are doing.”

Pride is a common theme among Spotlight Award recipients, many of whom have found new ways to collaborate with community partners to improve public health. Kentucky’s West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative is a collaboration between the Louisville Department of Public Health and Wellness and Department of Parks and Recreation designed to ensure every resident has access to a safe and healthy environment that increases physical activity, reduces stress and leads to healthier lives through outdoor recreation, environmental education and a sense of stewardship.

Betty Adkins, MEd, community resource director for the health department, said she was proud to help highlight the work being done with the parks department. She noted how the initiative, led by Bennett Knox, MEM, parks administrator, incorporates trauma-informed care practices to address the needs of the community.

“Public health is everybody’s business,” Adkins told The Nation’s Health. “We’re not going to go out and do Bennett’s work because he does it beautifully, but (we will work) to help shape that and help (the parks department) understand that what they do affects health. I think what Aetna, APHA and NACo did was provide that platform…so we could start the fire in the community and keep talking about it. His amazing work is getting the deserved attention it should.”

In Texas, too, collaboration is showing success in public health outcomes. Emily Green, CHWI, a public health education specialist at the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, said many community groups have come together to make Live Well Waco, an initiative to improve community health and well-being, a successful effort. Highlights of the work in Waco include Mission Waco, which opened a nonprofit grocery store in a food desert; the Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market, which offers cooking classes and recipes using foods from the market itself; and the Office of Community Engagement & Service at Baylor University, Waco Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Hispanic Chamber, which have worked together to host healthy, culturally specific food demonstrations throughout the year.

“I am continually amazed at the determination from our community partners to improve the lives of the people living in Waco,” Green told The Nation’s Health.“Waco’s various organizations and the people that run them is why we are experiencing such success in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge.”

Winners of the Spotlight Awards were:

But the award winners are not the only Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge participants doing good work within their communities. All 50 organizations are doing strong work to improve health for residents, said JeVonna Ephraim, MPH, APHA’s project director for the challenge.


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