A collaborative movement to help Savannah area residents live healthier lives celebrated its 10th anniversary Friday with a breakfast heavy on fruits and vegetables followed by an award ceremony highlighting the work of one of its partners.
Former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson launched the “Healthy Savannah” coalition in 2007 after he suffered a heart attack while at a conference in Memphis.
“I came to the realization that a lot of people in Savannah were suffering from preventable diseases,” Johnson said in a videotaped message shown at the meeting at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum.
In its first decade the collaborative’s public and private partners have chalked up victories including the launch and expansion of the Forsyth Farmers’ Market; the passage of smoke-free ordinances for Savannah and Chatham County bars and restaurants; and Savannah’s passage of a “complete streets” ordinance that facilitates walking and biking.
On Friday, the collaborative honored the Savannah Bicycle Campaign with its 2017 Innovation Award for its “New Standard Cycles” program that provides refurbished bicycles complete with locks, lights and helmets for people needing safe, affordable and reliable transportation to get to work, school and other important destinations. Partner organizations identify recipients in need of a bike, and volunteers with the campaign recondition donated bicycles.
The program has delivered more than 200 bicycles to people in need, including kids who ride them to school, said John Bennett, executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign. One of the first bicycles went to an immigrant from Afghanistan who had served as a translator for the U.S. military. One of the most recent recent recipients, recommended by Emmaus House, was a previously homeless woman who needed transportation to her job training site.
“We really depend on our nonprofit partners to find those people for whom the bike can be life changing to get and keep a job, to get to treatment or to get to class,” Bennett said. “It’s really regarding the bicycle as a vehicle in the literal sense but also a vehicle for improving people’s lives.”
Keynote speaker Dwayne Proctor is senior adviser to the president and director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which aims to “build a culture of health in America.”
“For us a culture of health is that idea that health doesn’t have to be difficult,” he said. “That you can be healthy as part of your every day. That you should be able to find fresh fruit and vegetables at a reasonable price that are affordable and appealing, in your community. That you should be able to walk through your community, bike through your community. That we think about our children’s health when we’re making policy.”
Proctor noted that areas of some cities — he used Richmond, Va. as a well-documented example — show large disparities in life expectancy by neighborhood.
“Babies born today in Richmond, Va. living here,” he said, pointing to a map of that city, “are going to live 20 years longer than babies born here.” He then showed a redlining map from the 1930s that depicted as poor investments the same areas with lower life expectancy now. Maps of redlining in Savannah would likely show similar patterns, he said.
“Almost 100 years ago decisions were made that are shaping health and health outcomes today so we have to get beyond that,” he said.
Proctor praised Healthy Savannah, whose mission is to “create an environment that makes a healthy choice an easy choice,” for focusing on not just narrowing these gaps, but on doing so by making sure everyone has the resources they need to live more healthily, a notion he calls “health equity.”
“You always focus on areas that need help the most,” Proctor said. “The idea is you want to bring everyone up. It’s a win-win. No one loses with health equity.”