What’s Playing in Nashville? It’s Got a New, Healthier Beat

Nashville has long billed itself as a center for the health-care industry, home to dozens of companies in the business. Now, the Tennessee capital is working on new ways to make its own residents healthier.

Nashville is one of 50 communities that recently won a total of $403 million in federal grants to implement programs to foster healthier lifestyles. The city’s $7.5 million, two-year grant to combat obesity is part of a push by the Obama administration to trim the nation’s health-care costs by preventing disease.

The goal of the national program, overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to determine which policies and activities are most effective at keeping people from smoking, overeating, or other unhealthy behavior, so they can be implemented in other communities. The Nashville program, called Nashvitality, has 22 objectives to reach, from improving school food to implementing a bike-share program.

“You want healthier options to be the default choice,” says Alisa Haushalter, the Nashville program’s project director. “You want to make it as easy as possible for people to do it.”

Ms. Haushalter’s team has worked with the public school system on revising its food policy to promote fruits and vegetables and limit access to junk foods. It helped a parent group push schools to replace sugary chocolate milk in cafeterias with lower-calorie flavored milks, and conducted an audit of foods in vending machines in the city’s high schools. And it created a how-to guide for teachers and parents to build and sustain school gardens.

The program also has developed a “healthy workplace prescription” to advise employers on how to make healthier foods more accessible, encourage employees to exercise more and set aside places for new mothers to breast feed, among other things.

It has assessed the workplaces of seven major Nashville employers, including Vanderbilt University, and is working on recommendations for each. Starting this month, city government departments must be smoke-free, ensure access to healthy food and provide private space for breast feeding, among other moves.

The grant program, run by an expanded staff in the Nashville/Davidson County Metro Public Health Department, works mainly to promote policy changes rather than fund individual events or activities, says Ms. Haushalter.

For example, a church might want the program to conduct a health-education class, but the program instead might advise the pastor or church staff how to create a healthier environment for its congregation. That might mean cutting out fried-chicken dinners and sodas at church functions and offering healthier meals and water instead.

That approach has taken some getting used to for organizations more accustomed to receiving grant money for specific activities, Ms. Haushalter says.

“People get frustrated with that,” she acknowledges. But, she says, the program “can effect change for more people through a policy change, and it’s more likely to be sustained over time.”

The program complements moves by Mayor Karl Dean to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks or public transportation.

Mr. Dean signed an executive order in October requiring Nashville to consider walking and public-transportation options in the design of streets. The city also allocated $3.25 million in the current fiscal year for an extension of its greenways—miles of walking and bike paths and open spaces that connect neighborhoods, shopping areas, downtown and suburbs. Another $5 million is planned for the expansion of parks and $12.5 million for expansion of sidewalks.

Originally published in the March 28, 2011 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

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