Benton County, Oregon

2014

Excerpt from Lessons for Leaders: 

Benton County’s Creciendo en Salud (CeS) initiative, which translates to “growing in health,” improved engagement of low-income and Latino residents by creating a Health Equity Alliance. The health department established a network of county-funded health navigators who provide leadership training and advocacy opportunities for disenfranchised residents. Their experience led to the Corvallis City Council’s Public Participation Task Force, which is revising the city’s current processes and structures into a more effective, inclusive, and efficient community engagement program. CeS also helped Corvallis Parks and Recreation to better reach low-income families.

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July 2014

In 2009, no full service supermarket was open in all of South Benton County, OR. People rode a bus at least ten miles to reach the discount grocery store in North Corvallis. Residents in the surrounding rural areas traveled much farther. Even the twice-weekly Corvallis Farmers’ Market wasn’t easily reached by foot or bicycle by many residents in this part of the county. 

Scant healthy food options top a list of challenges that the Benton County Health Department (BCHD) tackles through its Creciendo En Salud (Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities) initiative. Children in South Benton County face serious health problems. In 2009, one in five eighth-graders was overweight or obese.

Creciendo En Salud’s goal is to narrow disparities by improving access to affordable, healthy foods for low-income families, including the migrant and seasonal farm workers who sustain the thriving agricultural base of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “We’re sitting right here in farmland, but so many people don’t have access to the locally grown, healthy produce,” said project director Tatiana Dierwechter.

Yet, there’s hope. The department and its community partners are changing the food landscape. They are increasing access to farmers’ markets and new community gardens, helping existing farmers’ markets to be more welcoming to immigrants and ensuring there are healthier options at small convenience stores. Stimulating supermarket development in South Corvallis, population 5,400, is also a goal.

In addition, BCHD aims to make regular physical activity easier for people. Despite the county’s miles of bike lanes, being active is difficult in its rural areas. Commercial activity has developed along State Highway 99W, often without attention to enhancing main streets or pedestrian and bicyclist safety. When the initiative began, some local parks were in disrepair, lacked playground equipment and picnic areas to attract children and families or had limited-use restrictions. To help change this scene, Creciendo En Salud has involved elementary and middle school students in assessing barriers to walking and biking in the community, which was used to inform local transportation plans.

The partnership has many collaborators, from Corvallis Parks and Recreation and Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County to the Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services and Strengthening Rural Families. All of these organizations now work closely with residents, especially the local Latino population which is expected to nearly triple over the next decade, making certain their needs are being addressed.

“Being a relatively small community, we can actually get all of our partners around the table at the same time,” Dierwechter explained. “That’s so important as we continue to build relationships and move forward in action.”

Some of their accomplishments include:

  • Corvallis Parks and Recreation significantly streamlined and expanded its Family Assistance Program, which provides low and no-cost recreation opportunities for low-income residents. Their new “cost recovery” approach appeals to the city council while also significantly boosting participation in athletic programs for the children who need it most.
  • A successful community engagement process in South Corvallis led to major renovations at Tunison Park, including upgraded playground equipment, a new walking track and improved landscaping.
  • The Tunison Neighborhood Association and a grassroots group, Safe Paths to South Corvallis, provided leadership in planning for a multi-use pathway to provide residents with safer and more direct access to the downtown business district. The pathway, which will connect Tunison and Avery parks, is now an approved project of the city’s multi-year Capital Improvement Plan.
  • The City of Corvallis approved the Community Garden Master Plan, which describes the process for and creates a financial mechanism to support the creation and maintenance of community gardens in city parks.
  • Two Health Impact Assessments were completed, which studied (1) food systems and urban agriculture in Corvallis, and (2) the impact of speed limits and traffic calming on state Highway 99.
  • As a result of Creciendo En Salud’s inclusive multi-cultural approach to its work, the Corvallis City Council launched a new Community Engagement Task Force to learn from and replicate these techniques as best practices for city departments.