In 2003, high poverty rates and old infrastructure were affecting the health of residents in Buffalo, New York. A public–private initiative, led by Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc., was launched to improve community health. Partnerships were born, community members were engaged, and sustainable impacts have since transformed the city.
The Buffalo Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) partnership has used a variety of methods to strengthen its relationships with city staff and community members. Examples include engaging them in direct experiences in the community; producing quality assessments and policy briefs that help them do their work; using targeted sessions and tours at policy summits; helping train community members to participate more effectively in city meetings and processes; offering youth and family sessions at public meetings; and sending elected officials to national conferences for inspiration, networking and fun. These relationships have boosted participation in the local Complete Streets coalition and food policy council and have improved policy implementation.
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In 2009, the year Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) started, this side of Buffalo’s story could be illustrated through the following statistics. Buffalo had the third highest poverty rate among major U.S. cities. Almost 60 percent of adults and children were obese or overweight, double the New York state average. Vacant lots and neighborhood deterioration discouraged residents from walking or being outside, and predominantly African-American neighborhoods had fewer than half the number of supermarkets than predominantly White neighborhoods.
With funding through HKHC, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) joined nearly half a dozen key partners—the city, the University at Buffalo, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo and WNY, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, Go Bike Buffalo, and Grassroots Gardens—to help make it easier for residents to eat healthy foods and be active.
“We do face challenges, but the timing of this effort is right,” Project Director Kari Bonaro said. “We are really trying to create a community where people want to live, work and play. Where people have access to healthy foods, where they have the infrastructure to be outside.”
To accomplish this, the HKHC partnership is developing leaders across Buffalo who work to integrate health within city initiatives. These initiatives engage youth, community partners, local officials and families in the process to create a healthier Buffalo.
These leaders and partners are also influencing policy decisions through the establishment of the Food Policy Council of Buffalo and Erie County, and the creation of youth seats on the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board and the Buffalo Public School’s Wellness Committee.
Other key accomplishments of the Buffalo HKHC partnership have included implementing Safe Routes to School and Play Streets initiatives, and increasing the numbers of community gardens, bike lanes and bike facilities throughout the City. Another major success was the integration of health into the Buffalo Green Code, the city-wide land use and zoning policy.
Beyond its formal partners, BNMC can count on support from school halls all the way up to City Hall. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is a strong advocate for programs that promote healthy eating and active living. He launched a bike-rack program in the city’s commercial district and marked more of Buffalo’s streets with sharrows or shared-lane markings. And by teaming with the Massachusetts Avenue Project, HKHC involves local youth in both the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board and the Food Policy Council. In BNMC’s view, providing Buffalo’s youngest residents with leadership and organizing skills is important for fostering buy-in from the larger community and ensuring that the initiative’s efforts have staying power. Bonaro believes that, “the investments we are making and relationships we are strengthening with youth and policymakers are keys to revitalizing our city in sustainable ways.”