Building bridges to healthier communities

By Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Faced with a local “food desert,” the Town of Zebulon this spring opened the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market to boost the local economy and to increase access to food for people in need.

Concerned about local “play deserts,” the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department of the City of Raleigh is working with the Wake County Public School System to develop shared-used agreements that would give residents in neighborhoods with no space for outdoor recreation access to outdoor play areas at Vena Wilburn and Walnut Creek elementary schools.

Both initiatives are among a broad range of efforts by six Wake County municipalities that each is getting $210,000 over three years from the John Rex Endowment in Raleigh to boost healthy eating and active living, particularly among vulnerable families and children.

In a separate national initiative to improve access to healthy food and physical activity,  mainly for children in low-income communities, the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested $34 million over five years in collaborative efforts in 49 U.S. communities, including Nash and Edgecombe counties and Moore and Montgomery counties in North Carolina.

Playing a key role in designing and supporting both funding initiatives has been Active Living By Design, or ALBD, a Chapel Hill-based project of Third Sector New England.

ALBD provides consulting and technical assistance to create healthier communities, with a focus on healthy eating and active living, and works to help community partnerships create environments that promote healthy eating and active living.

Sarah Strunk, executive director at ALBD, says its work is based on the idea that people are likely to make healthier choices not simply as a result of efforts to educate them and shape their behavior, but by also by changing policies, social settings and physical environments that affect health.

Formed in 2002 as a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and housed for 12 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ALBD operates with an annual budget of $2.2 million, all of it from grants and contracts, and staff of 11 people.

Much of its work supports foundations directly, helping them develop initiatives to boost active living and healthy eating, typically to reduce child obesity, increase physical activity, reduce incidents of chronic diseases, or improve community safety.

Projects it has worked on represent a total investment of over $100 million in community partnerships, with $35 million of that going to ALBD to provide technical assistance, coaching, consulting, and support of learning by groups that are part of local collaboratives supported by foundations and other funders.

ALBD has worked in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and supported about 200 community partnerships in cities, suburbs and rural area s.

Much of its assistance focuses on helping people advocate for policy change, such as a “complete streets policy” to design or retrofit streets to be safe and accessible to all types of users, or promoting changes in the built environment, such as the creation of playgrounds or greenway systems.

For the John Rex Endowment initiative to improve healthy eating and active living, ALBD identified and assessed local efforts in Wake County, and helped design a grant initiative for the Endowment. It now is providing technical assistance to the six municipalities the Endowment funded in response to a call for proposals for funding for local projects.

For the “Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities” initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ALBD worked with the Foundation to develop the initiative and call for proposals; provided assistance to the 540 grant applicants; led national review teams that selected grant recipients; provided technical assistance to the grantees over four years each; developed a learning network of grantees, including workshops and annual meetings; worked closely with partners that evaluated the program; and developed case studies and “lessons learned” to share with the broader field of funders and other groups that focus on healthy eating and active living,

“We connect people who are interested in making their community better with those who are willing to invest in that work,” says Risa Wilkerson, associate executive director of ALBD, “and also with other resources and other communities who are doing the work, and with other national organizations.”

Strunk says ALBD also serves serves as a “bridge between organizations that have money and those that need money.”

ALBD, which has counted on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for roughly 80 percent of its revenue of $1.5 million to $3 million a year, now is working to diversify its funding base to include other types of funders and nonprofits that contract for its services.

And it is expanding its definition of health to include “all of the factors that influence where people live, work and play,” such as crime and safety, transportation, housing, clinical care, and medical care, Strunk says.

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