HEALing Communities: Spotlighting Transformation in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Feature Story

HEALing Communities is a five-part series that highlights Kaiser Permanente’s approach to building healthy communities through Healthy Eating Active Living collaboratives, a program developed by Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit organization.

Just 55 miles north of San Francisco sits the city of Santa Rosa, Calif., a vibrant and diverse hub teeming with art, culture, food, wine and recreation. One would expect to find abundant living all around here, but the southernmost edge of this city of nearly 168,000 people is where many of Sonoma County’s poorest families reside.

In a region known for scenic vistas, rolling hills and epicurean delights, the families of South Santa Rosa, Calif. have historically lacked access to basic resources — grocery stores carrying fresh produce, safe walking and biking routes, nutrition and exercise programs — that support the health and well being of community members. But these days, they are part of a collective effort to create positive change in their community, an effort that Kaiser Permanente is proud to support.

Improving Community Health

Healthy Eating Active Living

Gulf Coast Rebuilding Project

This distressed, sidewalk-free road leads to an elementary school in South Santa Rosa, Calif.
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Santa Rosa installed a sidewalk, crosswalk (off camera), and crossing signs on this street

Through a partnership with Safe Routes to School, Santa Rosa installed a sidewalk, crosswalk (off camera), and crossing signs on this street next to Kawana Elementary.
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South Santa Rosa is home to one of the earliest Healthy Eating and Active Living collaboratives sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. Together with two other communities in Northern California, Richmond and Modesto, Santa Rosa became the focus of Kaiser Permanente’s early community-based efforts aimed at reducing and preventing obesity and chronic disease that are at the core of the organization’s Community Health Initiatives work.

Beginning in 2006, Santa Rosa received $1.5 million in Community Benefit funding over a five-year period that went to promote strategies for improving the health of the community in the places where residents live, work, learn and play.

“As a prevention organization, we take seriously our mission to care for the health of our communities. That’s why the HEAL Initiative was created,” explains Kathryn Boyle, project manager for Kaiser Permanente’s HEAL Initiative in Northern California. “Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit team works closely with community partners to identify needs, collaborate on strategies, and support opportunities for improving health. Ultimately, we want the community to become their own champions for change.”

Leveraging Partnerships

For residents of South Santa Rosa, access to conditions that foster good health has been a challenge until now. Grocery stores carrying were located miles away, and local corner stores tended to stock cigarettes and alcohol instead of fresh, nutritious foods. Sidewalks and pathways to and from work or school were often too dangerous to navigate by foot or bike and parks for exercise and recreation are scarce or unsafe.

Kaiser Permanente saw the opportunity to make a difference in this community. We partnered with an existing organization in the region, the Sonoma County Community Activity and Nutrition Coalition, to facilitate the development of the South Santa Rosa HEAL-CHI Collaborative. Kaiser Permanente funded the Sonoma County Department of Health Services as the lead agency for this collaborative.

“When making an investment in a community, we often look for communities where partners from many sectors are already involved,” explains Boyle. “When there is already strong leadership for community improvement, the chances of achieving success are greater.”


Making a Measurable Impact

Together with stakeholders across many sectors of the community, the South Santa Rosa Collaborative developed a “Community Action Plan” that identified strategies and outcomes they would pursue for change in schools, worksites, neighborhoods, and health care settings. The work was carried out by a mix of volunteers, community partners, and paid staff and contractors. The following are some notable examples of improvements made:

  • The installation of footpaths, murals along a path to cover graffiti, sidewalk repairs, and speed limit signs, particularly in areas around schools.
  • Support for school healthy eating standards including the introduction of new healthy food services in cafeterias and elimination of unhealthy mobile food vendors outside of schools and healthier food choices in corner stores and local restaurants.
  • Engagement of Kaiser Permanente physicians to engage in local advocacy work with schools, city council, and clinic leaders.
  • Implementation of body mass index screening, tracking, and counseling in health clinics.
  • Adoption of worksite wellness policies and programs in local businesses.

“Change is hard,” says Boyle. “It’s hard on an individual level and hard on the community level. But we are seeing success in Santa Rosa and we are learning so much about how to sustain these efforts over time.”

This past August, Kaiser Permanente announced continued funding for the Santa Rosa, Modesto, and Richmond HEAL collaboratives, along with expansion into four additional communities, or “HEAL Zones” in Northern California. More than 40 additional collaboratives in communities like Santa Rosa are being funded by Kaiser Permanente across the nation with great success. These Community Benefit investments continue to support transformative change in low-income, underserved communities that measurably impact the health and well-being of community members.

Coming up in this series
: Highlights of the unique challenges and accomplishments in HEAL communities in Colorado and the Mid-Atlantic States region.