$1 million grant hopes to take a bite out of unhealthy food

Beatriz Lopez, of Richmond, stocks shelves at El Campesino supermarket in Richmond. Lopez said finding fresh fruits and vegetables in Richmond is not hard, but people choose to visit places that don't serve healthy foods like McDonalds. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Beatriz Lopez, of Richmond, stocks shelves at El Campesino supermarket in Richmond. Lopez said finding fresh fruits and vegetables in Richmond is not hard, but people choose to visit places that don't serve healthy foods like McDonalds. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Kaiser Permanente wants to HEAL Richmond. Not with expensive medicine or shiny surgical knives, but with good old-fashioned Healthy Eating Active Living, or HEAL Zones, the acronym chosen for a program that will help residents fight obesity through education. The program also includes a small business action plan that will encourage local businesses to promote responsible food and exercise choices.

The three-year $10 million HEAL Zones’ initiative is a continuation of Kaiser Permanente’s 2006 Healthy Eating Active Living Community Health Initiative (HEAL-CHI). It will be implemented in six other communities throughout Northern California: the Bayview in San Francisco, Madera in Fresno, Modesto, Monument in Concord, Santa Rosa, and South Sacramento. The program will allocate $1 million for each of the seven communities, and an additional $3 million will be invested for technical and evaluation support over the next three years.

A variety of organic lettuce grown at Eco Village in Richmond. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

The initiative will provide cooking classes at local churches and community centers, take people to grocery stores so they can learn how to shop and budget for healthy foods, and work with the school district to implement a healthy cafeteria food program.

Coire Reilly, Richmond’s HEAL Zone project leader, said the program will reach out to between 10,000 and 20,000 people in Richmond. It will include faith-based institutions within the Iron Triangle and North Richmond area including Nevin Community Center, Shields-Reid Community Center, Verde and Peres elementary schools and small business owners who participate in the Women Infants Children (WIC) program.

According to a Kaiser Permanente press release, HEAL Zones will focus on encouraging people to decrease calorie consumption, especially of sugar-sweetened beverages, increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, increase physical activity in community settings, such as parks and safe routes for walking and biking, and increase physical activity in institutional settings, such as schools and workplaces.

One issue with healthy food is that it tends to be more expensive. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

“What we really want to do in the next three years is develop the capacity of community residents to own these issues of healthy eating and healthy living,” said Reilly. “The first round of HEAL funding there was a much greater emphasis on policy and system, and changing the built environment—how cities are built. In this next round of funding there is more diverse set of suggested strategies and a component of education.”

One such strategy is improving urban planning by encouraging mom-and-pop retailers to locate closer to residential areas, so that residents can walk to these small supermarkets instead of jumping in a car and leaving their community every time they need groceries. “If there are no sidewalks or bike lanes then people aren’t going to walk [to these places],” said Reilly. “If there is no healthy food within walking distance then people aren’t going to eat healthy.”

For Margaret Gee of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation—a San Francisco non-profit that will serve as the fiscal administrator of the Kaiser grant—it’s not just about getting out and walking, but creating a community that is safe to walk in. “One of the challenges this community faces is safety and safe routes to schools,” said Gee. “Increase physical activity, but at the same time engage residents to create a more safe community.”

Gee also said low-income families don’t eat healthy foods because it’s more expensive. “People need to learn how to shop smarter,” said Gee. “You can buy healthy foods for the same price [as processed foods]; people just don’t know how to do that. Some of the nutrition classes that we are offering will take families to the grocery store and teach them how to do that.”

A barn at Eco Village in Richmond has various healthy food groups written on it. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

23rd Street business agent and HEAL Zones collaborator Jorge Lerma sees Richmond as a place for healthy food opportunities. “We want to organize the stores and tell them they have a lot to do with the health and wellbeing of this community,” said Lerma. “We’re like barefoot physicians going back into our communities and re-empowering life again. We want to have a say in our lives and have [healthy] resources in our communities.”

Shyaam M. Shabaka is founder and executive director of Eco Village, a learning center near El Sobrante where people can do hands-on activities to help save the environment.  Shabaka said he is working with HEAL Zones because youth and community health education is part of his DNA.  One role he will have in the program is to encourage the consumption of more fruits and vegetables by providing cooking classes at community centers and local churches. “I know there is hope for change in Richmond,” said Shabaka. “Over the past 10 years it used to be they had their Doritos and Coca-Colas. Now I’ve seen a substantial shift in people’s interest in wanting to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.”

One Comment

  1. Absolutely wonderful news!!

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