Jefferson County, Alabama


Excerpt from Lessons for Leaders:

Despite hard economic times, county bankruptcy and a state takeover of the public school system, the Health Action Partnership (HAP) in Jefferson County seized the opportunity generated by a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant to hire new staff, restructure to formalize the roles of its members and create a new framework to increase its scope dramatically. After a tornado devastated communities throughout the county and the recovery effort strained leading partners’ resources, HAP incorporated livable-community principles into local construction projects and used a federal TIGER grant to advance projects from the trail system master plan.

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July 2014

Across Birmingham (population 218,000) as well as the surrounding Jefferson County (population 660,000), many children face greater health challenges primarily because of where they live. Their families have limited access to affordable nutritious foods. Unsafe streets, unfriendly parks and urban crime keep them indoors despite generally sunny, warm days. The East Lake neighborhood is beset by high rates of poverty, unemployment and under-performing public schools.

Lack of healthy food options and safe, well-maintained spaces for physical activity in Birmingham’s East Lake and West End neighborhoods have prompted a determined response by health advocates, residents and local leaders. With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership (HAP), a coalition of more than 60 partners, is aiming to create “a climate for change.” HKHC, led by United Way of Central Alabama, helped motivate and focus the coalition toward specific goals to improve access to healthy, affordable food and safe physical activity opportunities in Birmingham’s urban setting as well as in Jefferson County’s suburban and rural communities.

The diversity of its partners—from faith-based groups to planning agencies, foundations and urban farms—have been crucial to the initiative’s success, said project director Harry Brown. “Community collaboration is woven into our social fabric, and the key has been to align everyone’s efforts around a shared vision for a healthier Jefferson County,” he said. “We’ve learned to work together because no one organization has the resources to be successful on its own.”

This collaborative vision, along with the responsibilities for achieving it, are shared by these essential HKHC partners: Jefferson County Health Department, East Lake Farmers Market, Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources (PEER), Inc., Freshwater Land Trust, City of Birmingham, Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Urban Ministry, West End Community Garden, Conservation Alabama Foundation, YMCA of Greater Birmingham, and the Birmingham-Jefferson Food Policy Council.

Key accomplishments:

  • The Jefferson County Board of Health unanimously passed sweeping child care regulations impacting 17,600 children throughout the county. The new rules for child care centers address nutrition, physical activity, screen time, and tobacco use to promote healthy choices for young children. HKHC partners established a referral and monitoring system that provided resources and technical assistance to previously unregulated child care centers.
  • School wellness policies were advanced in all of the county’s 12 school districts, with six districts participating in a wellness policy enhancement process. Specific policy changes affecting over 40,000 students relate to afterschool wellness, food procurement, and Safe Routes to School encouragement and enforcement language.
  • HKHC partners collaborated with the City of Birmingham’s Department of Planning, Engineering and Permits to update its zoning ordinance. Adopted by the city council in 2013, the new zoning changes recognize established urban farms, community gardens and fresh food markets. Furthermore, the new ordinance encourages sustainable food access in a variety of ways—legally, by recognizing these activities as a legitimate land use, and by increasing public awareness through outreach, coalition building and public comment.
  • Birmingham’s first Safe Routes to School initiative was launched, including a Walking School Bus in three Birmingham City schools which are sustained and managed by parents, teachers and community volunteers. This experience positioned partners to broaden their work, resulting in a $150,000 Alabama Department of Transportation grant to support a full time Safe Routes to School coordinator for Central Alabama.

Jefferson County, Alabama