For many of us, January is a month of pledges. As the holidays wind down and we’ve tired of gifts, gossip, and gluttony, I find myself- and others around me- buckling down. By the first of the year, we’ve joined gyms, stacked our pantries with the healthiest foods available at the grocery store, and generally have vowed to do better this time around. This all works quite well until right around March, when we get discouraged by the unaffordable gym memberships and exorbitant prices that buying healthy food costs us each week. By the end of March, membership at the local gym dwindles until only the fitness fanatics (like my mother) are left, and “foodies” are the only ones who justify spending most of their paychecks on fresh fruits and veggies.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this issue- I feel that it’s vital to the health of our communities that we begin to normalize a culture of healthy eating and exercise within our cities. What will it take to make an active lifestyle commonplace and healthy foods affordable?
I’ve found that some cities have in fact prioritized healthy eating and active living through the programs they financially and verbally support. These cities have engaged in unique partnerships in order to provide residents with options to sustainably incorporate healthy eating and exercise programs into their lives.
For example, Riverside, MO has the Riverside Healthy Citizens Initiative, where the city has worked with the local community centers in order to provide residents with a drastically reduced membership fee. Residents only pay 25 % of the total membership fee (the city pays the remaining 75%). By partnering with the YMCA (which runs the community center), the city of Riverside is able to provide discounts on membership fees to residents since it does not have to pay to maintain a fitness facility. Additionally, the city contracted with the YMCA to provide swim lessons for Riverside kids, which was 100% subsidized by the city. The initiative has been wildly popular- as of June 2011, roughly 600 residents (20 % of the total population) are participating in Riverside’s Healthy Citizens Initiative.
In a similar vein, the city of Tupelo, MS started the “Health on a Shelf” program to provide healthy snack options at convenience stores. The Healthy Tupelo Task force was created to provide residents with tools to make healthier lifestyle decisions. In order to execute the “Health on a Shelf” program, the Task Force partnered with local convenience stores to advertise and promote nutritious snacks that are less than 250 calories and 5 grams of fat. Additionally, the Task Force has been active in educating local citizens whenever possible and providing eye-catching signage to the participating convenience stores. Also, by branding certain healthy items as approved by the Task Force, this program is catalyzing a gradual cultural change towards healthier eating habits in the city.
And of course there are cities such as San Antonio, TX that seem to have restructured their entire ethos around community wellness. For example, the city has partnered with the Harlandale Independent School District (HISD) to promote health and wellness to youth through school and out- of-school time programs. Their efforts thus far include updating the health education curriculum; promoting healthy food policies for school lunches; and requiring afterschool programs to encourage physical activity, to name a few. Also, through additional partnerships with organizations such as the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other community organizations, the city and school district together have been able to effectively alter the type of access that the younger generation has to healthy foods and physical activities.
Several other cities have been equally active in providing healthier food and lifestyle choices for residents, namely through supporting farmers’ markets, community gardens, bike/car share programs, and safe routes to school programs. However, I think that the creative partnerships forged in order to successfully implement the programs in Riverside, Tupelo, and San Antonio provide a valuable lesson to all city leaders- in a time of fiscal austerity, public/ private partnerships are especially critical to build capacity and provide residents with access to healthier, affordable lifestyle choices.
We’ll see if 2012 is the magical year when I am able to stay healthy beyond March. In the meantime, do let me know what your city is doing to make a healthy lifestyle affordable for its residents!
[The “Health on a Shelf” program was a 2011 NLC City Showcase Participant in Phoenix, AZ.. Click here for more information about City Showcase and to learn about other city programs that were represented in 2011.]
[In order to read more about San Antonio’s efforts, and to read examples of other cities doing similar work around city- school partnerships to reduce childhood obesity, check out this report, written by NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.]