One year ago, the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association (APHA), the National Association of Counties (NACO), and Healthy Places by Design (HPBD) collectively launched the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge (HCCC) grant initiative. Today, 20 cities and counties across the nation are midway into their inspiring initiatives — improving access to food and health services — by changing systems and policies through diverse partnerships and the engagement of motivated resident leaders.
To date, HCCC’s 20 project teams have had a range of opportunities to learn through interactive webinars, skill-building workshops, virtual peer exchange sessions, and one-on-one coaching. The Challenge team, composed of APHA, NACo, Aetna, and HPbD, has coordinated this support.
Throughout the past year, the HCCC peer network has centered learning opportunities on themes that are important to improving equitable access to food and health services: community engagement, health and racial equity, food policy, and other essential topics. As a result of the network, HCCC project leaders have begun to prioritize and self-organize around common strategies, including youth leadership and enhancing nutrition security with charitable food agencies. In addition, food policy council coordinators in some Challenge communities are starting to organize (with support from the planning team) and are bringing new organizations with food policy council expertise into their conversations.
The peer learning network has also paved the way for Challenge grantees to adopt frameworks and best practices from the Challenge team itself. For example, after the Challenge team hosted a workshop on developing 15% solutions, the Wheeling, West Virginia project team incorporated the framework into their steering committee meetings, enhancing decision-making roles among partners and residents to reduce the burden of health challenges in their community.
While achieving lasting public health and equity outcomes is a big task, HCCC project teams have achieved plenty in their communities so far. Collaboration with old and new partners — and with community members — during an unprecedented time in our nation has prompted a number of local changes. Among them:
Ultimately, food and health systems must change from within each community to improve equity. Their success will depend on the quality of relationships among community organizations and other collaborators; an understanding of residents’ priorities, levels of trust, and power dynamics; and a willingness to confront the longstanding inequities that lead to poor health. Health and social inequities will take years to overcome, and we hope that the HCCC initiative will initiate and accelerate community change in important ways.