HEAL SPotlight: Bel Air, Maryland
Employees and families are tested for diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, hearing, eyesight, skin cancer, and other common heath conditions at the annual Bel Air Health & Wellness Fair held in 2016.
For the past four years, the Town of Bel Air has worked closely with community partners to implement its Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) agenda. This approach has led to broad community support for new HEAL policies and practices introduced by local government leaders. Keven Small, Bel Air’s Director of Planning and Community Development, views this as critical to the HEAL Campaign's success in attracting resources from outside of the local government. “To me the definition of sustainability is not having to subsidize or provide resources for something every year…. It should run on its own," said Mr. Small.
The Bel Air HEAL Campaign has had many partners and facilitators since it first launched under the leadership of Mayor Rob Reier in 2013. Mr. Small reflected on one of the Town’s early HEAL policy initiatives, the first Living Well Program in Harford County. The program provided free information on chronic disease and prevention strategies to residents. Since the Town's launch of the program it has seen a “snowball effect—now there are three to four [Living Well Programs] being implemented every year. We’re happy that could be taken up and continued by other folks,” commented Mr. Small. The same community energy and enthusiasm for HEAL continues to support Bel Air's successful health and wellness strategies today.
Lisa Moody, Director of Finance, has been another key figure in implementing wellness strategies, specifically through her work to improve health and wellness for Town employees. Seeing a need for healthier food options for Town employees, the Town’s Wellness Committee replaced unhealthy options in municipal vending machines with healthy vending alternatives. The Committee garnered employee support for the new options by working with a local vendor to offer samples of the healthy alternatives at the employee Health Fair, a popular annual event. Employees who attend the Health Fair as well a Town-sponsored Lunch ‘n Learn events are able to receive a subsidized gym or health club membership. The Wellness Committee has been instrumental in developing a partnership with the local farmer’s market to provide a ten percent employee discount for market purchases. The Town has also partnered with a health foundation to provide free step trackers to Town employees.
Much of this work is supported through the Sustainability Action Plan that provides key strategies to improve social, economic, and environmental health of the community. One of these strategies is to improve the community food system and develop a local community garden. Failing to implement the garden on its own, the Town turned to community partners for support. “We were trying and failing to get community gardens started in the Town… we just couldn’t get it to chug along on its own. Finally, we had the [St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church] take the reins and now it has 70 plots that they provide to parishioners and folks in the neighborhood,” explained Mr. Small. The partnership between the Town and St. Mathew's Lutheran Church extends the bounty of the garden beyond just parishioners. Garden plots are available through a sponsorship program for low-income residents and additional plots are maintained by volunteers that donate garden yields to the Church’s food pantry.
The Sustainability Plan also includes strategies to reduce motor vehicle use by encouraging walking and biking transportation options. These suggested strategies are further outlined through action steps included in the 2013 Bike and Pedestrian Plan. This has led the Town to pursue new active living projects each year including the installation of new bike racks, cross walks and bike/walking trails.
Bel Air’s HEAL Campaign Leaders note the importance of the extensive community partners that have been instrumental in supporting health and wellness policies and practices. As outlined in the Sustainability Action Plan, the Town strives “to be a community that engages in partnerships – between the Town Government and its citizens, between Bel Air’s public and private sectors, and between the Town and external organizations – to creatively integrate a sound economy, a healthy environment, and a caring society.” The HEAL initiative, as well as the Town’s wider community heath goals, are a combined effort that the Town employees and residents will continue to evolve and implement through the support of an extensive network of individuals and organizations invested in the health and wellbeing of the Bel Air community.