Living Well in Prince George's County
Friday, March 7, 2014

Prince George’s joins national movement to create healthy communities

In many Prince George’s County neighborhoods, it’s easier to find a place to buy fried foods, soda and beer than it is to find a fresh piece of fruit or a green space to go for a walk. We see rows and rows of convenience food stores and popular fast food establishments. Where are the farm stands and healthy food stores? And how can we better use our parks and playgrounds to invite children out to play?

With nearly 70 percent of adults identified in county health surveys as either overweight or obese, and 48 percent of children falling in the same category, we are quick to blame individual bad habits for these alarming statistics. “Stop eating those calorie-laden hamburgers and fried chicken. Go outside and move!”

If only it were that simple.

These issues call for community-based solutions that focus on improving the policies and infrastructure of our communities so healthy choices can be easy choices. We must ask and answer tough questions: Why do some neighborhoods have healthy food options and others only convenience stores? Why aren’t there health care resources in every area of our county? Why do some neighborhoods have clean, safe parks and walkable trails while others don’t? Why are our schools challenged to offer healthymeals and snacks and to allocate time and funds for physical education, even though evidence says that healthy students are better learners?

Answering these questions has more to do with “place” and “equity” than individual habits.

There are efforts underway in the county to change the way we support health and wellness. The Port Towns Community Health Partnership, or PTCHP, a collaboration between the towns of Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston, supported by Kaiser Permanente, United Way and others, is one example. The PTCHP is working to advance community health through a variety of initiatives, including: changing zoning laws to allow an urban farm to be built on a public housing complex; forming a Food Equity Council to strengthen the county’s food systems; and adopting agreements with the county’s school system to integrate more health programs into the school day.

PTCHP and other exciting efforts in the county, such as the Suitland and Langley Park Promise Neighborhood Initiatives, and the county executive’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, are in response to a broader conversation across the nation that affirms place matters. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the county more than $4.5 million in grants, through The Institute for Public Health Innovation and the county’s health department, to address health disparities. And this week, Prince George’s County will be the site of a national convening of more than 100 public health leaders. The Place Matters Action Lab, led by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, regularly brings these practitioners together to share successful solutions to change negative health trends. Place Matters participants are doing tremendous work aimed to achieve equity in employment, education, housing, health care, and access to affordable foods and physical activity in communities across the United States. Here in Prince George’s County, we will lead a tour and discussion about actions we are taking locally to engage our people, government and community institutions to advance health equity.

Our troubling health trends will be addressed not only through individual motivation, but also through changes in policy and neighborhood environments, and a commitment to equitable access to goods and services. So when you think about the high rates of obesity and chronic health concerns of our residents, remember, “Place matters.” Then, let’s ask ourselves: “What more can be done to improve the health of our place?”

This op-ed was published in the Gazette on July 11, 2013: http://www.gazette.net/article/20130711/OPINION/130719720/1014/prince-george-x2019-s-joins-national-movement-to-create-healthy&template=gazette
David Harrington

David Harrington

a former state senator, is senior policy adviser for nonprofit public health organization CommonHealth ACTION and president and CEO of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce.

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