If a restaurant partner adds a healthy option, it receives a preferred position as an AltaMed caterer and exposure on the practice’s social media sites.
“Healthy Communities Healthy Lives is working with local restaurants, grocery stores, and schools to get them to make changes that promote health,” says Jessica Solares, director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services Corporation, a community health network in Southern California. “Our grant from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was supposed to end in 2017, but it was just extended into 2018. The great news is because we thought the project was coming to an end, we began a conversation about sustainability about eight months ago, which led to thoughtful succession planning and identification of other internal and external funding opportunities.”
How did Healthy Communities Healthy Lives get started?
In 2008, AltaMed started a program called Health Education, Advocacy, and Leadership, or HEAL, which was intended to develop grassroots leaders to be advocates for healthy changes in the community. This work laid the foundation for Healthy Communities Healthy Lives, which received a CDC grant in 2014.
What does Healthy Communities Healthy Lives do?
The program is addressing diabetes and obesity. Our primary population is Latinos in Southeast Los Angeles, where childhood obesity rates are very high. We take a multifaceted approach—we work with restaurants and grocery stores to encourage them to offer healthier food, with schools to encourage administrations to strengthen their wellness policies and provide activities that help children to be more active, and internally among AltaMed employees to encourage them to enroll and participate in the Employee Diabetes Prevention Program offered on site during the lunch period.
What does your program do to persuade restaurants to offer healthier food?
We ask restaurants to make one change on their menu that offers a healthier alternative. For example, a restaurant might give customers the option to choose a salad instead of rice and beans or bottled water in lieu of a soft drink. If the restaurant does that, we put the restaurant’s name in a binder that AltaMed uses to place catering orders. We place a lot of catering orders. We also promote these restaurants on our Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram sites. We’re talking about small, independent restaurants that don’t have a social media team, so this is one way we can support them, as they support us. We currently have 35 restaurants in the program and are growing that number.
What about grocery stores?
We started with two major grocery chains and promoted “Harvest Heroes”—a program that uses cartoon veggie and fruit heroes to encourage healthy eating—with signage at four local stores. The signage draws attention to how to read nutrition labels and encourages shoppers to look for items that are low in fat, sugar, and sodium. At another store, we made smaller signs and put them around the frozen food aisle in five of their locations. They say things like, “If you’re having a frozen pizza, why not have a salad, too?” Then we started working with corner grocery stores that are small local businesses. We try to help them offer more produce and get them to put it somewhere that’s more visible to shoppers. In exchange, we offer them some signage and, more recently, shopping baskets that say, “Eat more fruits and vegetables.”
Is there a positive financial impact with this program?
We estimate that through our restaurant and grocery store programs, plus our outreach to schools and our internal employee health efforts, we’ve reached 173,968 people with our message.
How is the program funded, and is it sustainable?
Our CDC grant, which is almost $1 million per year, covers our expenses. When we thought the grant was going to expire in 2017, we did a lot of legwork about the next steps, and we were able to line up a private funder.
Interviewed for this article:
Jessica Solares is director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services.