Knox County HKHC created opportunities for residents who emigrated from Burundi to share their eating traditions with African-American and Latino residents to build social ties and help address cultural misunderstandings in a neighborhood experiencing ethnic transition. It arranged access to a vacant gymnasium for the children of Guatemalan residents to address their concerns about safe places to play and build trust. When conflict threatened to strain relationships, they found a way to shift their focus in a productive way; build additional relationships, including with youth, at a local elementary school; and significantly advance their Safe Routes to School effort.
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In 2009, the Knox County Health Department became determined to address the many health disparities faced by these children and families. Energy and passion for organizational change, coupled with the need to focus on policy and built environment improvements, led to two positive actions: applying for a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant and developing a community-wide strategic plan for healthy weight called Together! Healthy Knox (T!HK). The Knox County Health Department partnered with nutrition, physical activity and public health experts at the University of Tennessee, the Knox County Schools Coordinated School Health Program, the Regional Transportation Planning Organization, and others to provide healthier nutrition and physical activity options to all children. They worked with HKHC community action teams in three targeted communities: Lonsdale, Inskip and Mascot.
In Lonsdale, part of the City of Knoxville’s urban core, more than half of its elementary-aged children were overweight or obese and at risk for health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Nearly half of primary-school children living in Inskip, a northern Knoxville neighborhood, were also either obese or overweight. In Mascot, a rural community 14 miles northeast of the city, the rate was 53 percent.
Among Knox County’s more than 400,000 residents, 88 percent of whom are White, the HKHC partnership worked across the county and within the identified areas to assess environmental barriers to maintaining a healthy weight, while also expanding neighborhood Safe Routes to School options, especially critical given the lack of sidewalks in the targeted communities. The impact of HKHC continues to exceed expectations.
Project Coordinator Ben Epperson said, “This work is about three things: people, places and partnerships. If these are not your main driving factors in everything you do, then the result is nil. I’ve learned so much from working alongside community leaders. They are the real experts in community health. If government and system partners are willing to listen and support community-led action, especially if it’s a new idea that has shown promising results elsewhere, then communities change. Economics, safety, civic engagement, aesthetics, health. Things will change for the better if you focus on the right things.”
For more information, view a short film about their work.