Today’s guest blog comes from David Richards, project coordinator of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, an APHA initiative with the Aetna Foundation and the National Association of Counties.

Residents of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, exercise outside during an activity of Village HeartBEAT, a winning project of the Healthiest Cities & Communities Challenge. The mix of stretches allows for all people at different levels to participate. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg County Health Department

Residents of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, exercise outside during an activity of Village HeartBEAT, a winning project of the Healthiest Cities & Communities Challenge. The mix of stretches allows for all people at different ability levels to participate. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg County Health Department

Bridgeport, Connecticut’s NRZ East End Pop-Up Market and Café and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s Village HeartBEAT initiative emerged today as the top community health projects of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, a partnership of the Aetna Foundation, American Public Health Association and National Association of Counties.

The Challenge, a two-year $1.5 million prize competition, awarded the Bridgeport and Mecklenburg County efforts with $250,000 and $500,000 respectively for improving measurable health outcomes and promoting health and wellness, equity and social interaction in their communities. The winners participated alongside 48 other incredible city and county community health projects nationwide working in one or more health improvement areas: healthy behaviors, built environment, community safety, social/economic factors and environmental exposure.

The two finalists went above and beyond moving the needle toward healthier, more equitable communities. In Connecticut, three women from Bridgeport’s East End neighborhood initially sketched out on a napkin an idea of a vibrant and safe community market with abundant fruits and vegetables in the city’s worst food desert. After tireless dedication and persistence, the pop-up market and café is set to open its doors with the whole community behind them.

Danville, Virginia, women work out near where they live thanks to the fit mobile program, which brings fitness instructors to community centers. The project is a runner-up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy The Health Collaborative

Danville, Virginia, women work out near where they live thanks to the fit mobile program, which brings fitness instructors to community centers. The project is a runner-up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy The Health Collaborative

In a community with historic false promises, disinvestment and isolation, Deborah Thomas-Sims, Deborah Caviness and Kristin duBay Horton redefined civic engagement. The trio, along with community members and partners, led neighborhood dialogues, marches and surveys to ensure that every resident in East End felt ownership of the pop-up market and café as a haven for learning, citizenship and healthy snacks.

The Village HeartBEAT initiative led by the Mecklenburg County Health Department took a simple concept — empowering church pastors in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area to be spokespersons for health — to new heights. This idea has grown to a full-fledged network of faith-based organizations committed to community health and well-being. After the project’s first two years, there are now seven faith-based organizations that serve as Village HeartBEAT hubs or resource providers to another 60 churches.

Their multipronged approach — enacting written tobacco-free policies, training pastors as health ambassadors and connecting the network with community-based health and social service providers — has grown at an unimaginable rate. Their database of nearly 700 community volunteers kept the Village HeartBEAT beating.

The Challenge also congratulates four runners-up for each of its two tiers. Tier one finalists, which includes Bridgeport, consist of communities with populations between 65,000 and 250,000, while tier two finalists, which includes Mecklenburg County, go up to populations of 600,000. Tier one runners-up received $25,000 and tier two runners-up received $50,000.

A farmer for World Hunger Relief packs boxes of food for the Waco-McLennan County Health Department’s vegetable prescription service, which is a runner up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy Waco-McLennan County Health Department.

A farmer for World Hunger Relief packs boxes of food for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District’s vegetable prescription service in Texas, which is a runner-up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy Waco-McLennan County Public Health District

Tier one runners-up are:

  • Chatham County, North Carolina: The Chatham Health Alliance has embedded health into the county’s 25-year Comprehensive Plan, outlining a new approach to track community health trends, and promote collaboration and resource sharing among county offices to achieve a healthy, equitable community for all.
  • Danville, Virginia: The Health Collaborative has changed the conversation of health in the Dan River Region, bringing together hundreds of individuals from across jurisdictions and sectors to reimagine their community with equitable health access at the forefront.
  • Waco, Texas: The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District has used a data-driven approach to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, relying on their vegetable prescription service and a coalition of established partners to reach those most in need.
  • Wyandotte County, Kansas: The Healthy Community Corridor project has integrated participatory park design and active living signage, making sure every community member has access to safe urban parks, bikeways, improved sidewalks and off-street trails.
Camden, New Jersey, residents construct a rain garden that will help mitigate flooding from severe storms. The Camden SMART initiative is educating the community on the health effects of harmful sewage overflows and is a runner-up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy Camden SMART

Camden, New Jersey, residents construct a rain garden that will help mitigate flooding from severe storms. The Camden SMART Initiative is educating the community on the health effects of harmful sewage overflows and is a runner-up in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Photo courtesy Camden SMART Initiative

Tier two runners-up are:

  • Camden, New Jersey: The Camden SMART Initiative has enabled the community to institute creative solutions in green infrastructure, addressing hazardous urban flooding from extreme rainfall events and bringing attention to environmental justice.
  • Hillsborough County, Florida: The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization has created a web-based Health Atlas of Hillsborough County, mapping health and transportation indicators to identify gaps in food access and walkability.
  • Louisville, Kentucky: Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation’s West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative has brought nature-based education to disconnected urban neighborhoods, fostering a relationship to the outdoors that can build healthier lifestyles and social cohesion.
  • Miami, Florida: Live Healthy Little Havana has taken a holistic approach to convene cross-sector partners in establishing a trusting community with access to health services, complete streets assessments and crime reduction through environmental design.

To learn more about the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, visit healthiestcities.org.