Walnut Creek Mobilizes the Community for Health and Wellness

The City of Walnut Creek won an Award for Excellence in the Health and Wellness Programs category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

Everyone knows that health and wellness are important. Walnut Creek leaders wanted to support residents’ efforts to improve their health. The challenge was to move from ideas to action. While information and sound policies are needed to effect change, alone they are not enough to change behavior. It takes much more. How did one California city, Walnut Creek, overcome inertia and mobilize a community to walk its talk?

As mounting reports indicate — including the Surgeon General’s 2001 Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity – obesity rates continue to rise. According to the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, California obesity rates increased by 20 to 24 percent between 1991 and 2003. The toll is costly, not only in human lives, but also because, according to the California Department of Health Services, “physical inactivity, obesity and overweight cost California more than $21.7 billion” in direct and indirect medical costs, lost productivity and workers’ compensation in 2000.

“A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With a Single Step”

In February 2005, a local restaurant owner and a city council member took that first step together. Cindy Gershen, the host of local healthy cooking show “Cindy Says,” gave Walnut Creek then-Mayor Gary Skrel a wellness challenge on the air. Because the show was televised on the Rossmoor cable network, the Wellness City Challenge began there.

Rossmoor is a senior adult community of about 9,000 residents. Within weeks, Skrel and Gershen were initiating community discussions to share their idea for a wellness challenge. A month later, in April 2005, a 13-week program called the Walnut Creek Mayor-a-thon commenced. Participants enjoyed walking with the mayor, coupled with a nutritious breakfast.

The Mayor-a-thon was so well received at Rossmoor that Gershen and Skrel decided to challenge the Walnut Creek School District to a walking marathon and nutrition makeover. The timing was ideal because the school district board of directors had just adopted a student wellness policy. With guidelines in place to support the wellness challenge, the district was eager to support the emerging public-private partnership involving the community, the city and the schools.

In September 2005, the Wellness City Challenge provided assistance to the school district to examine school food products and menus, and bolster physical activity. One elementary school, Murwood Elementary, accepted the challenge to pilot a walking marathon. Over 13 weeks, young walkers were joined by the mayor and professional athletes. Each week, the children were rewarded for their efforts with delicious treats — frozen peach slices and strawberries. The result was 70 percent participation.

A Community on the Move

Today, the Wellness City Challenge has partnered with nearly every school in Walnut Creek, bringing the city together across three school district boundaries. Astoundingly, Walnut Creek elementary students collectively walked more than 35,000 miles (1.5 times around the world) at the conclusion of the first citywide Mayor-a-thon in 2006.

To celebrate the first year of the Wellness City Challenge and the completion of the students’ first walking marathon, a special “Healthy Day” event was held April 30, 2006. Awards and prizes pro- vided by businesses and community groups were given to the schools, teachers and students for participation in the walking marathons. Healthy foods and fun-filled physical games and activities were provided at the event. A highlight of the day was a hula-hoop contest featuring then-Mayor Kathy Hicks.

For its second year, the Wellness City Challenge enlisted parent volunteers to serve as wellness commissioners to coordinate programs at each school and attend monthly planning meetings.

To mark the completion of the students’ second walking marathon and the beginning of the Wellness City Challenge’s second year, the city’s Recreation Division took the lead in planning a family 5K and 10K walk/run, free healthy breakfast and community wellness celebration at Walnut Creek’s Heather Farm Park.

Information about the city’s health and wellness-related programs and smart land use planning principles, featuring a walk able downtown and a commitment to a healthy environment, are widely publicized through Wellness City Challenge materials. In turn, the city publicizes Wellness City Challenge events in its publications.

Expanding the Effort

The Wellness City Challenge continues its work and is currently engaged in:

  • Developing an age-appropriate health and wellness school curriculum with the Walnut Creek School District;
  • Working with school food services to achieve menu makeovers and provide healthier school lunches;
  • Producing a community health education lecture series;
  • Forming a Healthy Restaurant Association;
  • Planning a second “Healthy Day” event; and
  • Partnering with the Walnut Festival in September to sponsor a walk/run event and a Healthy Restaurant Association food fair with Mayor Sue Rainey as honorary chair.

Since the program’s beginning, Walnut Creek mayors have played a leadership role in the Wellness City Challenge. They have walked with seniors and children, danced with kindergarteners, hula-hooped with families and worked with restaurants to develop healthy menu options.

More than 10,000 people have already accepted the Walnut Creek Wellness City Challenge by experiencing the benefits of good nutrition and exercise, and having fun by living healthier lives.

Key Ingredients

What allows the Walnut Creek Wellness Challenge to walk its talk? It’s a synergy among city leaders and staff, school board members, school administrators, parents, teachers and children, seniors, businesses and community groups. No one group can do it alone. Everyone needs to move together.

Contact: Renée Zeimer, assistant to the city manager, City of Walnut Creek; phone: (925) 943-5800, ext. 503; e-mail: zeimer@ci.walnut-creek.ca.us.

This article appears in the January 2008 issue of Western City
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