How City Leaders Have Committed to Improving Children’s Health and Reducing Disparities

June 22, 2020
dad and baby

Last month, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and the Mayors Innovation Project launched a RFP for city leaders to share ideas to protect babies’ brain development, responding specifically to needs heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic particularly in disproportionately impacted communities. From a strong pool of cities ranging from 7,000 to 1.7 million people, 10 winners were selected to receive grants, technical assistance and an opportunity to present at a future Mayors Innovation Project meeting. 

Awards to cities totaled $65,000.

One of the winning cities, Scranton PA, is launching a playground revitalization effort with nontoxic cleaning supplies. “Our city seeks to assess and revitalize our city parks,” said Mayor Paige Gebhardt-Cognetti. “We believe that a program that provides attention to public health and physical well-being of our children will provide both the necessary tools to make playgrounds safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and create a path to a less toxic future safer for all children’s health.” 

Scranton isn’t the only city utilizing nontoxic strategies to create safer spaces for babies. Other RFP winners developed innovative approaches to provide healthy foods in neighborhoods without well-stocked grocery stores, reduce air pollution on playgrounds, create healthier childcare environments, and provide mobile services to support connection to services that support pregnant women and babies.

Over 25% of applicants proposed projects to provide healthier foods to pregnant women and babies. Four projects were selected, based in part on their ability to provide portable models, and critically sought to provide healthy foods to disproportionately impacted neighborhoods. Salem MA will utilize vacant municipal land for organic produce cultivation. Both Champaign IL and Lynn MA will increase delivery of local and organic produce in collaboration with their Farmers’ Markets  — and Champaign will bundle food delivery with pre and post-natal services. Salt Lake City UT will work collaboratively with residents living in low access food areas to develop solutions to the lack of healthy food access; the city committed to implementing their solution.

Trees and hedges have been shown to reduce air pollution levels through interception of airborne particles and/or through uptake of gaseous air pollution. Phoenix AZ will plant dense vegetation to reduce exposures to traffic-related air pollutants at a childcare center and K-8 school and measure the resulting impact on air pollution concentrations. This center serves children ages 2 to 14 years, where over 84% of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch and are largely minority students (67% Hispanic/Latino and  20% Black/African American). Environmental inequities from segregationist planning and zoning practices in the early 20th century placed industrial facilities in minority-dominated neighborhoods in the South Phoenix area, which led to economic, health, and quality of life challenges still present today.

This program also supports projects that create healthier childcare environments. Anchorage AK will scale up an on-going effort to provide phthalate and flame-retardant free nap mats and training about reducing toxic exposures to childcare providers. San Francisco CA will distribute flame retardant-free nap mats to childcare providers too and conduct workshops for providers about flame retardant chemicals, lead prevention and safer cleaning and disinfection. These providers serve San Francisco’s neediest families, most of whom are people of color who live in communities that are plagued by environmental burdens. The providers themselves operate these child cares on very narrow profit margins and this sector has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 closures.

Partly due to COVID-19 adaptations, two cities designed programs to increase the number of pregnant women and children under two that are connected with nutrition and environmental health (e.g., lead mitigation) services.  Norman OK will implement a “community access pop-up spot” mobile program to connect families to services. And Wilkinsburg PA will create a “Best Babies Zone” to streamline health and community support services through the creation of a digital public education campaign. 

Bright Cities and the Mayors Innovation Project are thrilled by the breadth of proposals received. Our goal is to create portable versions of these strategies, in the form of pragmatic case studies and peer-learning, to leverage these experiences for wider implementation and impact, particularly in disproportionately impacted communities.

Response to COVID-19 required significant behavioral adaptations and many will continue to have persistent impact. It helps us see that — particularly in a time of crisis — people’s behavioral changes can dramatically improve the health of the babies.

Is your City interested in being part of Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ Bright Cities program? To discuss this and anything else, please contact Bright Cities Program Director, Kyra Naumoff Shields at knaumoff@hbbf.org.