Kansas City Initiative Focuses on Prosperity, Health and Safety, and Education


KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Good nutrition can be good business when it comes to providing healthy food options in low-income neighborhoods, according to a national health expert who spoke at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

In comments delivered Thursday, Brian Smedley cited a Pennsylvania tax-incentive program targeted to grocery store developers in areas where meal options are often limited to convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

“Many of these stores (in Pennsylvania) have achieved a triple bottom line,” said Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. “That’s why I’m so excited about the potential of these kinds of partnerships to leverage the existing good intentions of our business community and to help them do business in communities where they simply weren’t able to in the past.”

Smedley said Kansas City’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative (UNI) is exactly the type of community partnership that can make such strides.

Smedley’s keynote address came as leaders of the initiative unveiled their action plan to an audience of about 250 civic leaders, community activists, and government officials.

The meeting participants broke into small groups to formulate concrete steps leaders could take to implement the plan, which includes a plank for promoting healthy neighborhoods.

Ideas from one group included allowing residents to purchase the same health insurance available to government workers and neighborhood bonding through a book-sharing network of birdhouse-sized “libraries.”

UNI Project Director Sylvia Robinson said officials would review the suggestions as they develop an implementation plan, which they expect to have ready by January.

The nonprofit Urban Neighborhood Initiative is one of the Big 5 community-improvement ideas unveiled in September 2011 by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

The initiative’s co-chairs are chief executives Terry Dunn of JE Dunn Construction Co. and Brent Stewart of the United Way of Greater Kansas City.

The initiative’s initial target area is the roughly 10,000-resident “Troost Corridor,” which is bounded on the west by Troost Avenue, on the east by U.S. Highway 71, on the north by 22nd Street, and on the south by 52nd Street.

“The thing we know, and what makes the work so very, very important, is we are not just talking about a geographic area,” Stewart said. “We are talking about an area where people are living. There are young mothers there. There are families, young children. These are people who are struggling day in, day out just to put food on the table.”

Officials said they had solicited comments from about 700 people in establishing the action agenda’s three prongs: prosperity, health and safety, and education.

In at least one public forum, held in March, participants put grocery stores high on the list of improvements needed for the inner city.

At least two grocery store projects are in the works in and around the corridor – one at 27th Street and Troost Avenue, the other at 39th Street and Prospect Avenue.

During the small group discussions, Jeph BurroughsScanlon offered the idea of opening up government workers’ health plans to the area’s residents.

He’s a senior administrative manager in Jackson County government and said he has floated the idea around the workplace.

“The people who like it, like it,” he said.

Others, he said, say it won’t work because the first people to buy in would be the sickest residents with the most costly needs.

Squier Park resident Leslie Scott suggested the “little free libraries” that could be scattered around neighborhoods. Residents could take a book and leave a book.

It might be a stretch to include the idea as part of the UNI goal to create neighborhood gathering places, she said, but “it’s just kind of a nice way for communities to come together on something as simple as reading or sharing information.”

Communities within the Troost Corridor are already addressing their own needs, said Dennis Robinson, president of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.

For instance, he said, Boy Scouts in Ivanhoe recently harvested more than 300 pounds of sweet potatoes from community gardens.

But, Robinson said, the neighborhood initiative should provide more “push power” for those efforts. “It helps to turn around the community much faster,” he said.

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