The Y Improves Millions of Lives (and Counting) Through Healthier Communities Initiatives

Ys across the nation help to strengthen communities through chronic disease prevention efforts

Jun 21, 2011, 09:00 ET from YMCA of the USA

CHICAGO, June 21, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- Birmingham, Ala., like many cities across the country, faces an unprecedented health crisis that threatens to cripple its future. Nearly one-third of Birmingham's citizens are obese and 11 percent are diagnosed with diabetes. But Birmingham is one of 190 communities nationwide making measurable improvements to the well being of its residents through participation in the YMCA's Healthier Communities Initiatives.  Spearheaded by the Y, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Sam's Club Giving Program, the Healthier Communities Initiatives helps local communities reduce chronic disease risk by increasing access to opportunities for physical activity and healthier foods.

As a leading nonprofit committed to strengthening communities, the Y created its Healthier Communities Initiatives to address increasing chronic disease and obesity rates across the United States.  Since 2004, 190 communities have participated in the Healthier Communities Initiatives, and in many of these areas, efforts have led to community improvements – such as increased access to fresh fruits, vegetables, walkways and bike trails – to make healthier living more attainable for up to 34 million lives.

"We know that increased stress, poverty, social isolation and unsafe neighborhoods limit access to healthy foods and discourage physical activity – making it even more difficult for many to maintain a healthy lifestyle," says Neil Nicoll, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA. "To combat these issues, the Y's Healthier Communities Initiatives bring community leaders together to find real solutions that help people live healthier lives and less susceptible to chronic diseases."

In Birmingham, the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership, of which the Y is a member, carries out the work of Healthier Communities Initiatives.  The partnership focuses on making lasting policy and environmental changes to fight obesity in Alabama's largest county. So far, hundreds of community leaders and community members from schools, neighborhoods, businesses and afterschool programs worked to identify barriers to healthy living and implement solutions to address them—specifically focusing on providing more opportunities for physical activity and easier access to fruits and vegetables.

"We want a Birmingham that our children and their children will be proud of for many years to come," says Lisa Jones, senior vice president of the Birmingham YMCA. "Healthy living will continue to be an integral part of our community culture by making nutritious food easily accessible to all and enabling residents to have the opportunity to be active in a safe environment."

Among the biggest challenges for Birmingham was tackling areas where healthy and affordable food is difficult to find. To address these food desert issues, the Health Action Partnership created the Seed to Plate program, cultivating urban gardens accessible to all residents and school children.

"Before the program, residents were two blocks from an orange soda, but five miles from an orange," Jones says. "Residents now have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Kids are learning to grow and prepare healthy foods and educating their parents about what they've learned, and going home and asking their parents for it."

With the support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Sam's Club®, YMCA of the USA has provided funding and ongoing training and educational opportunities for Ys and their community leaders. As a result, the community leadership teams have succeeded in making changes such as ensuring that streets are more walkable through complete streets initiatives, fruits and vegetables are readily available by creating farmers' markets and community gardens, and parks and public places are smoke free.

Besides Birmingham, other examples of Healthier Communities Initiatives successes include:

  • East Harlem, New York – After a series of multiple supermarket closings within two years of each other, the community quickly realized that fresh fruit and vegetable options would be completely eliminated.  With leadership from the Y, three new supermarkets opened in the neighborhood; a NY City Food Cart program was introduced; two green market locations have opened seasonally in community parks; and neighborhood youth programs routinely distribute $2 "Green Bucks" that can be redeemed for fruits and vegetable snacks.
  • Elgin, Illinois – With help from the Y, Highland Elementary school in Elgin, Illinois, began introducing an extra serving of fruits and vegetables each day during students' break time.  Over time, not only did the kids look forward to what fruit or vegetable they would be getting, but they were then going home and asking for these fruits and vegetables.
  • Marshalltown, Iowa – Under the leadership of the Y, Marshalltown undertook a Community Healthy Living Index (CHILI) to measure the extent to which the community fosters physical activity and healthy eating among its residents. As a result, three new projects were developed and introduced into the community: the Lenihan School Sidewalk Project that makes it easier for children to walk to school, a Bike Trail Extension project linking two trails to make a continuous 21-mile trail that provides increased access to biking and walking and a farm-to-school program that supplies fresh produce to children.

Through the Healthier Communities Initiatives, YMCAs bring together a team of local leaders that plan and implement strategies for healthy change, responding to the needs of their individual communities. The local leaders include elected officials, state and local directors of public health departments, business and local school officials, parks and recreation departments, community and faith-based organizations and foundations and hospitals.

"The Y's role is to meet the unique needs of each community we serve, and as communities face different challenges when battling chronic disease, the Y is able to bring a level of innovation and find real solutions through our Healthier Communities Initiatives," explains Jonathan Lever, vice president, health strategy and innovation of Y-USA. "We can't solve our nation's healthcare issues by continuing to treat disease after the fact.  We have to move to prevention, which is not only what Ys wake up every day working to accomplish, but also an important goal of the organizations with which we collaborate."

Adds Neil Nicoll, "To truly counteract the nation's chronic disease crisis, a national effort is needed – one that encourages healthy living and engages all sectors of society with a focus on changing the environments where we live, work, learn and play to make healthy options a reality. We have seen first-hand how small changes in a community, with relatively little funding, can create positive, long-lasting and sustainable change."  

For more information about the Y's Healthier Communities Initiatives visit To access videos of some of the local communities that have been successful in making changes, please visit

About the Healthier Communities Initiatives:

Healthier Communities Initiatives include three distinct efforts: Pioneering Healthier Communities (PHC), Action Communities for Health, Innovation & Environmental Change (ACHIEVE)—both funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and Statewide Pioneering Healthier Communities (Statewide PHC)—funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Sam's Club®. Each initiative focuses on making strategic changes in the physical environments or in community settings (i.e., schools, worksites) to promote healthy lifestyles at the local level. Statewide PHC specifically aims to address the childhood obesity epidemic at state levels and in collaboration with communities in those states.  ACHIEVE unites Ys, local and state health departments, parks and recreation departments and other community based organizations more formally in the fight against chronic disease.  

About YMCA of the USA

YMCA of the USA is the national resource office for the Y, one of the nation's leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 Ys engage 21 million men, women and children – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation's health and well-being and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors. Anchored in more than 10,000 communities, the Y has the long-standing relationships and physical presence not just to promise, but to deliver, lasting personal and social change.