The message of a city- and county-sponsored event at Google this week was quite clear: where you live plays a larger role in your health than you might think.
The "Community Forum on Healthy Communities," organized by Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, packed a Google conference room with several hundred attendees Tuesday morning. The event was held at Google's Crittenden Lane campus to highlight some healthy features at Google, where employees ride colorful bikes between buildings and eat the healthiest of foods in on-site cafes. At the start of the event, attendees took a walk on the adjacent stretch of the Stevens Creek Trail, and later took breaks for stretches and quick aerobic exercises. Olympic soccer champion Brandi Chastain attended and spoke in support of public health programs.
City Council members Laura Macias, Tom Means, Mike Kasperzak, Margaret Abe-Koga and Jac Siegel attended, as did police Chief Scott Vermeer, the city's community development director, Randy Tsuda, and Kevin Woodhouse, assistant to the city manager.
If City Council members were unaware of their power when it comes to the health of the city's residents, it was made clear Tuesday by keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of healthy communities for the California Endowment.
When Iton was Alameda County's public health officer, he and his staff began researching death certificates over a 45-year period and found "pockets of concentrated premature death" where people died 20 years earlier than average. Iton says many of the factors leading to premature death are under the control of local government policies: land-use planning that move schools out of walking distance from students' homes, a lack of access to parks and trails, streetscapes that discourage walking and bicycling, and neighborhoods that are like "food deserts" with poor access to grocery stores with healthy food. Other factors included access to good jobs.
When it comes to your health, "your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code," Iton said. "Give me your address and I'll tell you how long you will live."
Iton noted that healthier communities tend to be densely populated, in order to economically support the grocery stores and other services that would be located nearby. It is for this reason that rural areas, such as Fresno, have high rates of obesity, Iton said. Ironically, residents of these agricultural areas have less access to healthy fruits and vegetables, Iton said.
Mountain View was held up by Iton and Kniss as an example of a healthy community. But if that has been the goal all along, Mountain View officials have been quiet about it. Kasperzak said in Mountain View people often talk about making neighborhoods walkable and bikeable, but it's usually out of concern about the environment and reducing emissions from cars.
Kasperzak said local government officials are "just beginning to think about" their responsibilities for the public's health.
"This is not something officials have thought about as within their realm," said Kasperzak, who is considering making health issues a theme of his upcoming term as president of the California League of Cities.
With what Kasperzak called "a new awareness" about health impacts, the City Council may change its attitude towards fast food restaurants. The fast food chain Chick-fil-A has applied for permits to build a store where Sizzler now stands on El Camino Real near Rengstorff Avenue. In the future, Kasperzak said the councils might not permit fast food chains that don't serve a certain amount of healthy foods. But such policies seem "a few years away," he said.
Kniss, who has experience working as a nurse, said she believes the new focus on health is the result of rising health care costs, awareness of the country's obesity problem, and the passage of the Affordable Healthcare Act, which provides grant funding to local governments. Kniss and state Assemblyman Paul Fong are raising awareness about the AHA in an effort to leverage grant funding to fuel what Kniss calls a "growing movement" for community health.