California Endowment Reports Successes in Improving Health in Low-Income Communities

As it prepares to launch a ten-year, $1 billion effort to develop healthier environments and better employment, education, and housing opportunities in fourteen communities, the California Endowment has issued a report that looks at how its Healthy Eating Active Communities (HEAC) program resulted in better eating habits, more and better fresh food options, and healthier lifestyles in low-income communities, the Associated Press reports.

Between 2005 and 2010, the $35 million initiative aimed to improve overall health in six communities — Oakland, Shasta County, South Los Angeles, Baldwin Park, Santa Ana, and Chula Vista — by addressing a range of factors, including school lunches, afterschool programs, and neighborhood facilities. After evaluating local food and physical fitness programs, the endowment supported efforts to bring salad bars to school cafeterias, encourage local famers to supply fresh produce to mini-marts, and keep school facilities open after school hours.

According to the 143-page study, providing healthier food options in school cafeterias, where fast food options dominate, made school lunches more popular and boosted revenue enough to offset the higher costs of providing fresh food. To that end, the endowment helped establish sixteen farmers' markets and produce stands across the state — going so far as to advocate for the repeal of a long-standing law in Fresno that prohibited fresh produce stands within city limits.

The report also acknowledged that efforts to boost activity during school-based physical education classes were less successful and remained below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation of 50 percent active time, and that improving the quality of retail food outlets was difficult to affect.

Despite these shortcomings, the initiative demonstrated that creating healthy options for residents of low-income communities results in healthier communities, said Marion Standish, director of the endowment's Community Health program. "When communities clean up neighborhood parks or open school playgrounds on weekends, children get more exercise," said Standish. "When we open farmers' markets in the middle of food deserts, families eat better."

Shaya Tayefe Mohajer. "Foundation: $35M Program Led to Healthier Schools." Associated Press 05/11/2011.