Health Equity: Leading Through Programs, Environmental Changes and Policies

October 5, 2017, Department, by Karen Soohoo

2017 October Health and Wellness Health Equity 410

NRPA was awarded a seven-year grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to establish a RWJF Award for Health Equity. Now in its second year, this award program recognizes individuals who have led communitywide policy, environmental and program changes to reduce health disparities through parks and recreation. The award advances RWJF’s vision for building a culture of health, ensuring the equal opportunity to live in healthy environments by raising awareness of the need and solutions for systems changes to achieve health equity.

NRPA is proud to announce that the winner of the 2017 RWJF Award for Health Equity is Patti Solano, superintendent of community services at the City of Riverside Parks, Recreation, and Community Services Department (PRCSD). With nearly 15 years of service in parks, recreation and community services, Solano is committed to ensuring people of all ages and cultures can easily achieve healthy lifestyles. “I am thrilled to be recognized for the work my team and I have been doing to make Riverside a healthier community, especially impacting the lives of so many residents who may not typically be exposed to such programs and resources,” Solano says. Under her leadership, PRCSD has worked with many partners to make systemwide changes that support physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being of all — particularly those most underserved — through programs, environmental changes and policies.

Health Programs and Events

Through her work, Solano has championed many health initiatives with the support of private, public and nonprofit partners. One of the strongest partnerships is with Kaiser Permanente. In 2013, Solano led PRCSD to become a Kaiser Permanente Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone. The HEAL Zone is a collaborative effort targeting the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside to get residents to increase the consumption of healthy foods, decrease calorie consumption and increase physical activity. The HEAL initiative also extends into the PRCSD’s Kids-In-Action afterschool program. Promoting healthier lifestyles to children was accomplished through this program with HEAL Zone healthy eating and fitness classes. PRCSD also works with Kaiser Permanente’s Operation Splash to provide free swim lessons to 38,000 low-income participants.

Another major program that Solano spearheaded is PRSCD’s implementation of the Office of the Mayor and the California State Department of Public Health’s Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention Branch (NEOPB) funding initiative. PRCSD is one of several sub-grantees, including the community development department and both Riverside and Alvord Unified School Districts, whose staff works with low-income and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) individuals to accomplish many objectives related to NEOPB provisions, such as providing health education to increase the consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables and to reduce obesity rates.

In addition to these large initiatives, Solano also started the Walk With Ease Program, an NRPA grant-funded walking program for older adults, especially those with arthritis; started an annual Senior Fitness Fair; works with the Riverside Community Health Foundation to bring fun nutrition and fitness programs to low-income neighborhood residents; and runs the Riverside free Summer Food program, which served more than 53,000 meals in 2016.

To celebrate the many health programs Riverside offers, Solano oversees the annual ‘Spring to Health’ community outreach event, which motivates all Riverside residents to incorporate better nutrition and fitness into their lives by bringing resources, strategies and nutrition education to one location. Through this community-supported event, more than 40 vendors supply services and donations, such as free health screenings and bikes.

With free programs and events like NEOPB’s ‘Spring to Health’ and HEAL Zone’s Senior Fitness Fair, Solano has made a palpable impact on the community by bringing together residents and organizations to work toward a healthier future.

Environmental Changes

Solano’s commitment to creating systemwide changes with the support of parks shines through the story of the Children’s Health Education Enrichment Resource (CHEER) building. According to Rachel McLure, city of Riverside senior management analyst, when an office space adjacent to the Cesar Chavez Community Center became unoccupied, Solano envisioned a “campus with support services for all sections of the community.” With the help of parks maintenance staff and local teens, the building was renovated to house many programs, including HEAL Zone and NEOPB, as well as an afterschool program, a “Time for Tots” program, and a family resource center with the Riverside Unified School District. None of this would have been possible without Solano’s push to use this space.

While the CHEER building is her biggest environmental change, Solano has overseen other environmental changes in Riverside that have increased availability of health resources for those who are underserved. Through the Community Settlement Association Bermuda Garden, HEAL Zone staff engaged local high school students in nutrition education and created greater access to fresh produce. In addition, Solano expanded free resources for residents to be active through the installation of outdoor fitness stations in two city parks.

Adopting Policy

Finally, to ensure that these environmental changes and programs are continued and supported in the long run, Solano has advocated for policies at the city, county and state level. Using Solano’s “Healthier Food and Beverage Guidelines” policy and citywide implementation plan, the city council adopted a new policy in 2015 that resulted in significant improvements in the nutritional quality of food and beverages served in the city. Riverside has also embedded these programs into staffing and operational costs, and has secured private financial and in-kind support for the long-term commitment to health equity.

Solano’s advocacy continued at the state level where, with her guidance, HEAL Zone staff chaperoned five youth council members to meet with legislators to discuss improvement of drinking water access during the school day. By promoting the civic engagement of youth, as well as local and state health equity policies, Solano has made long-term impacts to ensure that all people can lead healthy lives.

Solano was recognized at the 2017 NRPA Annual Conference and will be recognized at the annual RWJF Awards for Health Equity: Recognition and Learning Convening, where the work of the RWJF Awards for Health Equity winners from nine national membership organizations, including NRPA, will be honored. NRPA congratulates Solano and the city of Riverside PRCSD for making measurable and sustainable differences in the health and well-being of people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds in their community.

Karen Soohoo was NRPA’s Health and Wellness Summer Intern.