Thoughts from Makani Themba-Nixon, Director of Communities Creating Healthy Environments.

The nation's First Family rolls up their sleeves to volunteer in soup kitchens to help those without food to eat. The First Lady reinstitutes the White House vegetable garden, which by the way, is the first to grow food since First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous Victory Garden more than sixty years ago. And the Food Network even does a special Iron Chef episode using vegetables from the White House garden as the secret ingredient. Clearly, issues of obesity are on the public agenda and that can be a good thing.

However, there have also been some negatives to all the attention. The spotlight on obesity (versus creating healthy environments) has given rise to victim blaming and the stigmatization of those who do not fit western notions of beauty and fitness. Low-income people already strapped for funds and, through no fault of their own, live in communities with limited access to healthy food and few outlets for safe recreation. These problems are exacerbated by private and public health insurance schemes that penalize clients for being overweight without consideration of genetics or cultural relevancy.

Washington, DC, where I live, is a case in point. DC, for all practical purposes, is really two cities. It is the grand capital of this nation with its stately buildings and manicured gardens. It is also the District of Columbia, an urban center hard hit by crisis and poverty, where even access to safe drinking water is a challenge for many families. There are many places like DC for which accessing healthy food and safe places to play is more like tackling an obstacle course than making “choices.”

In fact, when it comes to healthy food and safe, green places to play, many families have very little options. There are thousands of neighborhoods across this country without any parks or public green spaces and too many communities with parks that are not adequately resourced. Thanks to years of budget cuts and public neglect, unsafe playground equipment is often surrounded by abandoned debris and broken glass. Organized recreational programs are too few and for teenagers, virtually nonexistent. In New Orleans, for example, the city cut the New Orleans Recreation Department budget to zero, even though the city had 500 percent more revenue post Katrina as a result of recovery funds. Yes, you read that right. Zero funding for recreation in the face of more than a fivefold budget increase. Parents, already working non-stop to rebuild many aspects of their lives, are trying to keep these programs going without public support. They should not have to.

Access to healthy food is not much better. Too many communities are inundated by corner stores and junk food outlets. In thousands of neighborhoods nationwide, it's easier to get malt liquor and a pack of cigarettes than an apple. And as my grandmother would say, "that's just too wrong to be right."

Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE) is a national initiative to invest in local communities hardest hit by these issues. Through funding, technical assistance and other forms of support, CCHE grantees engage in local policy advocacy, community organizing and other strategies to address the issues head on. We are off to a strong start as the first cohort of grantees selected last fall are among the most dynamic, cutting edge, organizing groups in the country.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King this month, it's worth reflecting on his observation more than 40 years ago that, "our nettlesome task is to turn our strength into compelling power." CCHE groups are building on that legacy of turning their organizing strength into "compelling power." They are building power and influencing the public agenda in order to transform our communities into places where all people can thrive. As we issue a new Call For Proposals for next year's cohort, we are looking for another ten groups with that kind of commitment to transformative change. Perhaps it's your organization that can play a vital role in advancing the CCHE vision.

In solidarity and fellowship,


Click here to check out the new CFP to see if your organization qualifies