Mecklenburg County health program wins national competition - North Carolina Health News
By Yen Duong
Wanda Dupree just wanted celebratory ice cream.
But while wondering which flavor would best mark the end of a 16-week health challenge, she ran into her chair aerobics coach, who talked her out of the treat.
“I realized that this wasn’t just about this challenge. This was an initiative for us to make lifestyle changes and be able to save our lives […and] take that to our community,” Dupree, a middle-aged woman who participated in Mecklenburg County Health Department’s Village HeartBEAT program, said. “It’s definitely a community because I didn’t get that ice cream.”
This past year, over 24,000 Charlotteans like Dupree participated in walks, aerobics classes, nutrition and cooking courses, smoking cessation classes and other events with Village HeartBEAT, a health intervention program run in collaboration with over 60 African-American and Hispanic/Latino faith-based organizations.
Their hard work paid off. Village HeartBEAT won $500,000 from the national “Healthiest Cities, Healthiest Counties” competition, sponsored by the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties. On Feb. 12, leaders including Governor Roy Cooper celebrated the win at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center but cautioned there’s still more work to be done.
“Village HeartBEAT is a national example of how the local public health [department] and the community, particularly faith-based community, can work well to really tackle some serious issues affecting minority communities,” said Dr. Garth Graham, president of the Aetna Foundation. “The kinds of things that Village HeartBEAT has done on the local level is what we need to see nationally.”
Village HeartBEAT: a national example
Heart disease is the second leading cause of death, behind cancer, for North Carolinians, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the U.S. overall, African Americans are almost twice as likely to die from heart disease or stroke than white Americans. Risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure and obesity affect African-Americans over 50 more than their white counterparts.
Village HeartBEAT, which started in 2012 with seven participating Charlotte churches, aims to address those risk factors through a 10-month program culminating in a 16-week health and fitness competition. That first year, outreach events reached over 10,000 participants, according to a Mecklenburg County report.
Each year, Village HeartBEAT, which stands for Building Education & Accountability Together, expands to more faith-based organizations. Its success is a “proof of concept,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
“This was an example of something that can be scaled up [and] that can be taken to other communities,” Benjamin said. “They got to put their personal slant on it but other communities can replicate this model.”
Using the faith community to reach people
Village HeartBEAT is one of many Mecklenburg County initiatives to reduce rates of obesity and tobacco use and increase physical activity, along with a new farmers market, bringing healthy food to food deserts and events which close streets to cars allowing for people to walk and bike in the street.
“Public health is never going to be the complete safety net that our communities need,” said Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris. “How ever we can provide services through our community partners, that’s what we need to be about.”
Of the roughly million residents in Mecklenburg County, about 20 percent live in its “public health priority areas,” with high levels of poverty where there are few high school graduates, according to the Mecklenburg State of the County Health Report. Village HeartBEAT targets these locales, enlisting church congregants to lead their peers in the health challenges.
“The faith community is a centerpiece of most communities,” Benjamin said. “These folks have decided that they’re going to be the chief health strategists for their community and they worked hard to make that happen.”
Harris seconded, “They are in the community day in and day out; their connections with the people in the community are incredible. This is an incredible recognition of the work that this community has done to improve the health of our folks who are most impacted by health issues.”
Winning the national competition
The national competition for small to mid-size cities and counties gave out $1.5 million in prize money to support health programs.
“We were trying to look for and highlight and uplift […] organizations that are making an impact in our community,” Graham said. “We wanted to be able to recognize those folks who were the soul of the community.”
Village HeartBEAT won the mid-size division. Smoking rates decreased from 17.4 percent to 13.9 percent and obesity rates dropped from 70 percent to 64.7 percent in the target areas over two years, according to the Healthy Cities, Healthy Counties national competition website.
“We were able to see the impact that you all were doing […with] the kinds of things that quite frankly are big challenges for us at the national level,” Graham said. “And you all are doing it here.”
Three other areas in North Carolina were among the top 50 finalists in the competition. Along with Village HeartBEAT, Chatham County was among 10 winners of a smaller $25,000 prize announced in January. Durham and Cabarrus counties received an honorable mention for that award. Davidson County was also a finalist.
“It’s time for North Carolina to do it.”
After congratulating the program, Cooper used his time at the podium to stump for Medicaid expansion, which he touted in his state of the state address in February. In reference to bills for Medicaid expansion, Cooper listed benefits of a “$4 billion per year infusion into our economy,” reducing homelessness, lowering health care premiums and adding tens of thousands of health care jobs.
“We think this is one of the very best ways to ensure a healthy North Carolina, to make sure that people have the health insurance they need,” Cooper said in a press conference immediately after his speech. “And aside from the health care benefits, this is a common sense economic development project. We’re already paying federal tax money to Washington. We need to have it come back to North Carolina.
“This is something 37 states have already done. It’s time for North Carolina to do it.”
Near the end of the event, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma D. Leake also stumped for a cause. She urged private and public employers to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour as Mecklenburg County did this month.
“Government does not want to deal with you,” Leake said. “They don’t want to provide any funds for you to do the things that’s necessary. I challenge us to do the right thing at the right time for the right people.”