What is a healthy community? Is it one with bike lanes where you can safely travel to work and home? Is it one with fresh, healthy foods that are accessible to all the citizens? Is it one with safe, affordable housing, or one with clean drinking water? There is no one way to describe a healthy community, and the needs of a community may drive the health priorities that local leaders and citizens focus on. Did you know that the zip code in which we reside is a better predictor of our health than our genetic code? Because of this, public health professionals strive to improve the health of ALL communities so that no matter someone’s zip code, they have the same opportunity to live in a healthy environment as their neighbor who may live 5, 10, or even 20 miles down the road.
In honor of National Public Health Week and today’s topic of healthy communities, I am highlighting a few communities and one state throughout the United States and the health initiatives and policies they have implemented to improve the health and safety of their community.
Unfortunately, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have increased from 12.9% in 2007 to 18.2% in 2016 of all traffic deaths in the United States. Portland, Oregon, is a city that has stepped up to do something about these staggering statistics. A few years ago, city leaders in Portland created a policy that required when a bike lane was recommended by road designers, it must be a protected bike lane which creates a barrier between cars and bicycles, or they must explain why it would not be protected. The policy supports the city’s Vision Zero strategy that aims to support safe alternative methods of transportation. Portland has the highest percentage of bike commuters of any large US city at 7.2% which makes this policy a top priority for the city. No matter how many of our town or city’s commuters travel by bike, a policy like this promotes a healthy (and safe) commute among residents.
Large cities have been addressing homelessness for decades. The nonprofit organization Mobile Loaves & Fishes built and operates Community First! Village, a community that provides housing in the form of RVs and micro—or “tiny”—homes to those who were homeless. The RVs and micro homes provide a small living space for the residents in which they have their own privacy and can experience the comfort of a stable home. The idea of the community is that it not only puts a roof over someone’s head, but it provides a sense of community, with a large garden, community kitchens, laundry rooms, playgrounds, and much more. The organization wants community members to feel at home and build relationships with others who live in the community. There are currently over 200 housing units and the organization is in the process of adding an additional 310 housing units. Once the additional housing is completed, the organization anticipates that they will be able to provide permanent homes for about 40% of the chronically homeless population in Austin.
Lowcountry Street Grocery began in 2015 as a mobile farmers market that services various areas in Charleston. Their mission is to provide healthy, affordable food, along with nutrition education in food deserts where access to fruits and vegetables is limited, and other areas throughout the city. Outfitted as a repurposed bus named “Nell,” the mobile market travels from one stop to another packed full of items like locally sourced fruits, vegetables, eggs, and more. The mobile market is a win-win for local producers and consumers. The schedule for the mobile market changes but it frequents senior centers, mobile home parks, public housing areas, and public outdoor spaces like parks and other high traffic areas. The market accepts SNAP EBT and participates in the “Healthy Bucks” program which allows SNAP recipients who spend at least $5 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables receive $10 in “healthy bucks” tokens to purchase additional fruits and vegetables.
The Flint, Michigan water crisis opened our eyes to the very real problem in the United States that not every community has access to clean and safe drinking water. A new report called “Get the Lead Out” is the basis for recently-introduced legislation in the Massachusetts state house addressing lead in drinking water. After Massachusetts received a “D” grade, legislators have proposed new measures to ensure clean drinking water at schools and child care centers, in order to protect children from the harmful effects of lead in drinking water. The proposed legislation would require testing every drinking water outlet each year at both schools and child care centers. This is much more frequent than some states which only require testing if lead has previously been detected or only require testing every 5-6 years. Under this proposed legislation, if a water fountain has tested positive for lead, it would be shut off and only turned on after completing two tests that show the fountain is free from lead. Additionally, water fountains that show elevated lead levels would be replaced with filtered bottle-filling stations. This type of statewide legislation aims to protect children and ensure they are not exposed to lead which is a dangerous neurotoxin.
We can always learn from other cities, towns, and communities and adopt public health best practices to make our communities healthier and safer. No matter our own definition of a healthy community, I think the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sums it up the best—“In our communities, we all should be surrounded by conditions that enable us to live the healthiest life possible, such as access to healthy food, quality schools, stable housing, good jobs with fair pay, and safe places to exercise and play.” As a public health dietitian, I encourage us all to work toward this goal to make our communities healthier and safer.