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Act Now to Create a Healthier Community

As local officials, we grapple with a lot of challenging issues and tough situations, and we don’t always agree on the best thing to do. But once in a while we come across something that makes such good sense we can all agree on it. Cultivating a culture of better health for our communities and for our employees is a good example of something that we can all agree on — and we can take action to make it happen in our own backyards.

Fostering healthier communities makes fiscal sense for local governments, businesses, families and individuals. Here’s why.

Obesity threatens the health of an increasing number of kids and teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States — triple the rate from just one generation ago. Being overweight puts children at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, sleep apnea and respiratory problems, and numerous other health complications.

When our children’s health suffers, it affects the entire community. Kids who don’t feel good don’t perform well academically. Caring for a sick child often means parents miss work, which means reduced productivity and efficiency for businesses.

The obesity epidemic affects adults, too. African-American women and Hispanics have the highest rates of obesity (41.9 percent and 30.7 percent respectively). Obesity is a contributing cause of many other health problems for adults, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer. These are among the leading causes of death in the United States. Obesity can also cause sleep apnea and breathing problems and make activity more difficult. Obesity can also cause problems during pregnancy or make it more difficult for a woman to become pregnant. Obese people require more expensive medical care. This places a huge financial burden on our medical care system and drives up the cost of health care for everyone.

The underlying causes of obesity are not difficult to understand:

  • When people eat too much and don’t get enough physical activity, they gain weight;
  • In some communities, especially lower-income neighborhoods, residents have less access to stores that provide healthy food like fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • It is often easier and cheaper to get less healthy foods and beverages;
  • Restaurants, fast-food outlets and vending machines offer fare that is often high in calories and fat;
  • Americans consume a lot of sugar. Six out of 10 adults drink at least one sugary drink per day; and
  • Marketing and advertising promote food that is high in sugar, fat and salt.

In addition, many communities are built in ways that make it difficult or unsafe to be physically active:

  • Access to parks and recreation centers may be limited, and public transportation may not be available; and
  • Safe routes for walking or biking to school, work and play may be lacking.

People are living longer, but if they are unhealthy they can also be sick a lot longer, too — and that is costly. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News titled “The Cost of Dying” recounts one woman’s experience with her elderly father, an Alzheimer’s patient whose last 10 days were spent hospitalized with a fatal infection. The bill totaled $323,000. A follow-up article, “Lessons Learned,” explored the additional costs of this experience in terms of its emotional agony for family members and the patient’s rapidly declining quality of life.

The issues related to longer life spans touch all of us on a personal level. It’s also something that local governments are thinking about with respect to retiree health care costs, which are ultimately borne by the taxpayers.

The quality of life is inextricably intertwined with health status. Poor health means a poorer quality of life. As elected officials, we want our residents to enjoy a good quality of life. And as fiscal stewards of our cities, we understand that better health has a direct impact on the bottom line — healthy employees are more productive, and healthy retirees need fewer costly medical procedures and medications. A healthy community is a vibrant place where people can thrive and enjoy a better quality of life.

A Leadership Opportunity

Improving the health of our communities is a leadership opportunity for cities. It’s easy for cities to lead on this issue by joining the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Cities Campaign. More than 100 California cities are already participating in HEAL, which supports cities in adopting policies that:

  • Promote walking, biking and physical activity; and
  • Enhance access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

Joining the HEAL Cities Campaign is simple. Your city council just adopts a resolution, which you can download from the HEAL website: http://healcitiescampaign.org/

Setting policy to support a goal is something we do all the time as elected officials. The HEAL Cities Campaign provides plenty of resources for cities that want to improve the health of their residents and their employees.

Implementing Policies That Support Health

In Mountain View, we’ve taken a multi-faceted approach to improving health and wellness. The process began in 2008 with extensive community outreach as part of our General Plan visioning process. Our residents identified these core values for the community: sustainability, quality of life, and health and wellness. They highly value access to parks and recreational activities, accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists, access to transit, and neighborhoods with stores that offer fresh produce and healthy food choices.

As we looked at the core values that would form the basis of the General Plan, we realized that health and wellness were just as important as sustainability and quality of life. Based on what we heard from the community, our staff worked to incorporate health and wellness in all of the General Plan’s elements, rather than making it a separate and discrete element. Mountain View’s General Plan now includes a strong emphasis on “complete” streets that accommodate the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, giving walkability and bikeability the same planning imperative and emphasis historically given to the car. Access to parks and recreational opportunities is another priority.

Our General Plan also includes mixed-use development that promotes access to services and complete neighborhoods; housing that supports transit; and strong environmental health and public safety components. We are working to ensure that every neighborhood has access to healthy foods, including fresh fruit and produce, within easy walking or biking distance.

One of our greatest successes has involved using aging strip malls to establish “village centers” in neighborhoods. People are using these centers as gathering places for positive interaction. We are looking at ways to build on the potential strength of these village centers, possibly by making land use more flexible in these centers to promote healthier retail opportunities and expand services that support health into neighborhoods where they don’t currently exist.

Improving Employee Health

Looking at community health also prompted us to take a closer look at employee health. Research shows that our employees and their families are affected by asthma, diabetes, heart disease, depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In an effort to effect a positive change, Mountain View applied for and secured a $40,000 grant in late 2011 from the YMCA of Silicon Valley to improve municipal employee health and wellness. The city’s Wellness Committee has used the grant funds to:

  • Launch a workplace community-supported agriculture delivery program, which provides boxes of fresh locally grown produce via a subscription service;
  • Establish the Health and Wellness Minute Series, which invites health educators to different citywide events where employees can ask general health and wellness questions and pick up brochures on related topics;
  • Audit the city’s snack and beverage vending machines. Healthy snack and drink options ranged from just 20 to 37 percent of all items in the machines. After meeting with local vendors who service the machines, healthy snack and drink choices were increased to 70 percent;
  • Launch a Health Matters at Work website, a one-stop portal for health and wellness resources including simple health assessments and free educational webinars and podcasts, available to all employees 24/7;
  • Begin holding on-site Weight Watchers meetings. More than 20 employees are currently participating in the program, and collectively they have lost more than 150 pounds;
  • Post two health education wall-mounted displays designed to educate employees on pertinent health issues and provide brochures and tips on wellness and prevention;
  • Provide healthier food choices at the annual summer barbecue and holiday lunch, and incorporate exercise opportunities and health and nutrition information into the events;
  • Send “Maintain Don’t Gain” e-mails to employees from mid-November to the first week in January. Maintain Don’t Gain is a free do-it-yourself resource offering a variety of ideas, tips and materials to help employees resist temptation and take charge of their weight; and
  • Establish a health and wellness blog along with Thrive Across America (an online physical activity program where you travel across a virtual trail by recording exercise minutes).

On a more personal note, I have to admit I found the statistics on obesity somewhat alarming. In the past year, I’ve noticed unwelcome extra pounds creeping up on me. While I’m not a big fan of sweets, I do like a full plate. The HEAL Cities Campaign has given me the motivation I needed to adopt a more healthy Mediterranean diet and start a new exercise regimen. As I write this column, I’m happy to report that I have lost six pounds and I’m feeling more energetic.

Take Action Now

Given our interest in supporting community health and wellness, it was a natural fit for Mountain View to join the HEAL Cities Campaign. And bearing in mind the benefits associated with healthier communities — fiscal savings on health care for employees and retirees, and an improved quality of life for all — this is something I strongly encourage you to do in your city. To learn more, turn to page 8 to read “HEAL Cities Campaign Supports Healthy Communities.”

Just visit the HEAL website (http://healcitiescampaign.org/) and download the sample resolution, which your city can adopt to join the HEAL Cities Campaign. Make health and wellness a priority for your city now, and reap the benefits of a happier, healthier community. 


More Resources for Planning Healthy Neighborhoods

The Institute for Local Government’s Healthy Neighborhoods Project provides support and resources local officials can use to protect and improve community health by integrating health considerations into their planning, land-use and other decisions. Visit www.ca-ilg.org/healthyneighborhoods to access ideas for action, case stories and resources designed to strengthen the efforts of local officials, staff, planning and development professionals and community residents in creating healthier communities.

The site also contains a free publication, Understanding the Basics of Land Use and Planning: Guide to Planning Healthy Neighborhoods, which offers helpful tips for local officials.