A Hillsborough County public health initiative received a $50,000 grant this week as part of the national "Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge."
The challenge is a collaboration between the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties.
Of the 50 cities that competed, ten received awards of various amounts with two winners and eight runners-up. Florida was represented twice, with Miami’s Live Healthy Little Havana program and Hillsborough’s Garden Steps initiative among the runners-up.
The Garden Steps project focuses on increasing access to healthy food in low-income areas through community gardens, cooking classes and other efforts.
It's sponsored by Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO focuses on transportation but Executive Director Beth Alden said that is often intertwined with health.
“Part of that is where are healthy foods located, and the other part of that is how do you get to them,” she said.
Alden cited an example of how transportation projects are involved with Garden Steps. Their partners with the City of Tampa posted new signs to help pedestrians and cyclists access community gardens.
The signs list the distance to the closest neighborhood garden and estimate how long a walk and how long a bike ride it would take to get there.
Alden said that’s just one example of the type of thing the project can do more of with the $50,000 grant.
“We’ll be able to expand all of those opportunities, so expand opportunities for new gardens to be created in food desert neighborhoods, expand opportunities for nutrition education and workshops in community centers on how to prepare foods and share ideas about that,” she said.
“Expand education about creating community gardens for aspiring gardeners who are interested in that and also expand access to and awareness of community gardens within neighborhoods through directional signs.”
Florida Department of Health's most recent Community Health Assessment lists Hillsborough as having a higher obesity rate than some of its “peer counties,” in other words, large, urban communities in Florida.
28 percent of Hillsborough residents are reported to be obese compared to 24 percent in Orange and Broward counties and 20 percent in Miami-Dade.
Alden said the Hillsborough MPO is placing a stronger emphasis on factoring in health outcomes with its transportation planning.