While Palm Beach boasts sparkling white beaches, beautiful hotels and mansions of some of the rich and famous, a drive just a few miles west quickly revealed that it was no longer a tourist’s postcard world. Affluence and privilege disappeared and scenic views were replaced by compromised communities that suffered from a variety of social, economic and health disparities that included poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, and obesity. All of these were far too plentiful within the trio of cities wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Turnpike.
In the cities of Lake Worth, Greenacres and Palm Springs, the School District of Palm Beach County felt compelled to assume leadership for an initiative that would begin to address these issues. In the three cities and surrounding vicinity, where the combined population was approximately 80,000, 25 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level and 70 percent of children received free or reduced-price school lunches. In addition, three-quarters of students spoke a language other than English at home, reflecting a decades-long surge in immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean, and forty-nine percent of local middle school children were overweight or obese.
In 2009, in response to these inequities, the school board applied for a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant to promote and create opportunities for active living and healthy eating for children and families outside of the school day. The project built upon the existing energy, dedication and commitment of the school board’s wellness committee and, in partnership with the Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners and the cities themselves, created a new partnership that would expand the focus beyond students and staff to create sustainable systems change that will last beyond the scope of the initial HKHC funding. Under the leadership of HKHC project director Eric Stern, and project coordinator Erica Whitfield, a community engagement strategy was designed to create a culture of wellness by leveraging the financial support and human capital of local schools, community foundations, law enforcement, health agencies and residents.
Some key accomplishments include:
- The partnership collaborated with school staff and local organizations to develop 27 school and community gardens at a number of elementary and middle schools with principals signing agreements that include decisions about the distribution of produce and garnering commitments to ensure long-term success. Local businesses and community partners have agreed to provide support to the gardens beyond the life of the grant.
- The county’s first joint use agreement was approved, opening a field on the campus of Berkshire Elementary School for public use on weekends and holidays through a partnership with the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department. Additional funding was secured to install a walking trail.
- A policy to include healthier options in all vending machines was adopted by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department.
- The Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization adopted the Bike Master Plan and has started integrating the recommendations into their county engineering planning processes.
- The City Commission approved a zoning change that led to the installation of the first Palm Beach County Fitness Zone in a Lake Worth community that lacked access to any recreational opportunities. This was made possible with funding from The Quantum Foundation, the City of Lake Worth’s Community Redevelopment Agency, The Trust for Public Land, Wells Fargo and The Palm Healthcare Foundation.
- In partnership with the Lake Worth Community Redevelopment Agency, funding was secured from the Florida Department of Transportation to create a greenway on 27 miles of unpaved roads in the City of Lake Worth.
Project Coordinator Erica Whitfield said, “The opportunities afforded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant have had an astounding impact on our community. The community has truly rallied around creating environments that support health and well-being. We are excited for the changes that have been made and the effect this project is having on the surrounding communities and the School District as a whole.”