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How Can Coalitions Help Create a Culture of Health?

What is a Culture of Health? At the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Boston in November 2013, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), stated that the U.S. “spends more on health care than any other country by far, and yet we are not healthy. In order to create a healthier nation, we must not only treat illness, but also create opportunities to pursue the healthiest lives possible.” Lavisso-Mourey defines a culture of health as “a society in which each person has the opportunity to lead a healthy life, with adequate housing, educational opportunities, safety from violence, healthy food options, exercise, and affordable, quality health care.”

How can coalitions help? We know that businesses, communities and organizations around the country are using coalitions to mobilize, plan and initiate strategies to confront some of these issues. They know that health is connected to community, opportunity, and safety, as well as medical care. Look at what a sample of coalitions have accomplished this past year:

WALKINGIn Virginia, two rural counties created the Eastern Shore Healthy Communities Coalition to combat obesity by initiating Smart Bites to teach teens to eat healthy, healthy menu options in 15 restaurants, an annual fitness challenge for more than 1700 residents, walking trails in 5 towns, and wellness policies in 10 major businesses.

vegetable-gardening-1The Healthy Lifestyle La Plata (HLLP) coalition in Colorado used farm-to-school efforts to facilitate policy and purchasing practices that resulted in local producers providing the school district’s 6,800 students and staff members with more than 480 pounds of micro greens; 380 pounds of carrots, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, mixed greens and potatoes; 100 pounds of wheat cereal and 650 pounds of ground beef annually. These changes reduce the unnecessary importation of food and decrease the carbon footprint of food transport.

newbornIn Chicago, the Midwest Business Coalition on Health, major health plans, hospital systems, perinatal directors, Il Maternal Child Health Coalition, Childbirth Connection, March of Dimes, Chamber of Commerce, and Northwestern University created the Illinois Perinatal Quality Collaborative to focus on data sharing, appropriate perinatal standards and policies. Partnering with CBS and NBC, they are engaged in a major communications campaign to educate employers and consumers about why full term delivery is the healthy choice for mothers and babies.

gun_safety1The Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles is a critical resource for organizations, policymakers and opinion leaders who are engaged in violence prevention work. Their “Tuesdays at 10” peer learning workshops use a structured format to share knowledge among members. Their Community Safety Scorecard, Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline project, and Gun Safety Summit to improve gun safety and reduce lethal violence underscored their prevention efforts.

These are just a few examples of how community coalitions and partnerships are involved in creating a culture of health. While one person (e.g., Nelson Mandela) or one organization (e.g., RWJF) can certainly have an impact, the power of the combined voices and actions within a given community really drives change. And it usually requires a convener organization or coalition to coalesce those voices and encourage the more difficult policy, systems and environmental actions that lead to substantive, lasting change. I submit that building and sustaining those organizations will go a long way toward creating a culture of health.