HEAL Cities Campaign Supports Healthy Communities in California and Beyond

December 19, 2011

by Charlotte Dickson

Obesity and related diseases take a dire toll on cities, threatening the health of their most vulnerable populations - including children and youth - while at the same time draining city coffers. California cities participating in the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Cities Campaign are putting land use, economic development and employee wellness policies in place to change that.

Initiated in 2008 by the League of California Cities and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), HEAL offers workshops, technical assistance, model policies and a website supporting cities that wish to become healthier places to live and work. In California, HEAL works closely with First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Cities, Towns and Counties initiative.

In 2012, with funding from Kaiser Permanente and help from NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families, CCPHA will expand the successful HEAL Cities Campaign beyond California.

How Does the HEAL Cities Campaign Make a Difference?

HEAL helps cities adopt policies that promote walking, biking and physical activity and that enhance access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Rather than putting the onus on residents and employees to search these things out for themselves, HEAL helps municipal officials build them into the city's fabric. In a HEAL city, families might follow a walking path to a vibrant city park, shop at a local farmers' market or buy healthy snacks at the public pool.

Which California Cities Are Participating in HEAL?

Of 482 cities in California, 94 have signed on to the campaign, adopting policies and resolutions supporting health. The League of California Cities board has made HEAL a priority for 2012, urging member cities to join the campaign, and NLC recently resolved to support HEAL's expansion. HEAL is actively exploring similar projects in Maryland, Oregon and Virginia.

What Are the Benefits?

Even if they wish to improve their health, people living or working in areas without sidewalks, and surrounded by fast food but no grocery stores, have a tough time making healthy choices.

HEAL helps build cities where people can purchase healthy food and can walk, bike or use public transit to get to school, work and commerce. Keeping shopping dollars in the community builds healthy residents and strong economies.

What Have HEAL Cities Achieved?

Greg Pettis is a councilmember in Cathedral City, Calif. The city has a population of 51,200 and a childhood obesity rate of 28 percent. Pettis first heard about HEAL at a League of California Cities conference. With HEAL, Pettis works to keep the city's attention focused on solutions to the obesity problem. Recently, the city partnered with the Rotary Club to establish community gardens at two low-income housing projects. They will add a sustainability chapter addressing HEAL principles to the city's General Plan, and are working on a program to get residents walking outdoors.

To the north, San Pablo Councilman and former Mayor Leonard McNeil represents 29,139 residents in a city with a 37 percent childhood obesity rate. McNeil previously participated in a 22-city partnership under the Kaiser HEAL initiative, working with a neighboring city to make health a part of their General Plan. He learned about the HEAL Cities Campaign while serving on the League of California Cities' Community Services Policy Committee.

Since joining the campaign, the San Pablo City Council unanimously passed a Health Element, fully supported by the city manager, including a new Health Commission to support the effort.

San Pablo adopted a wellness policy that replaces unhealthy snack foods at city-sponsored events with healthier options, city staff developed a walking club and the city is hosting 60 low-income residents in a series of classes on nutrition on a budget, including cooking, financial literacy and smart shopping.

By brokering convenings of like-minded city leaders across the state, HEAL has helped San Pablo join forces with other groups and cities to identify local opportunities for change. Currently, the council is working on policy and education strategies to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Details: To learn more about HEAL, visit http://healcitiescampaign.org. In January, HEAL will launch a national campaign at http://HEALNation.com. To start a campaign in a state or city, download the HEAL Cities Campaign Toolkit at http://healcitiescampaign.org/toolkit.html or contact Charlotte Dickson at (510) 302-3387 or cd@publichealthadvocacy.org or Leon Andrews at (202) 626-3039 or andrews@nlc.org.

Charlotte Dickson is director of the HEAL Cities Campaign at the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.