Walk with Friends: An Integrated Approach to Address Violence and the Social Determinants of Health

By Gina Roberson, Health Education Council

The Health Education Council (HEC) works to cultivate health and well-being in underserved communities by leveraging the power of collaboration in the Sacramento region. HEC helps to identify and address underlying issues that influence health like unsafe parks and neighborhoods, poor access to healthy food, and limited physical activity opportunities.

HEC’s Walk with Friends (WWF) initiative started with funding from Kaiser through the South Sacramento HEAL Zone initiative and has expanded from one walking group to nine. WWF was awarded a 2016 California Department of Public Health Innovation Award.

Recognizing the intersection between violence and active living, in 2012, HEC explored how physical health, social connectedness, and community well-being could be improved through walkability, which led to park improvements, resident engagement, community walks, and produce distribution — which we coined Walk with Friends. WWF is an integrated approach which addresses: community safety; social cohesions; physical activity; access to healthy food and resources, as well as resident engagement. 

Each week WWF, through identified community champions, brings together adults to walk and talk with each other. To incentivize participation and increase access to produce, walks conclude with free produce distribution from local food banks. Law enforcement, school administrators, physicians, and other community partners often attend walks to provide information, resources, and enrollment assistance to participants. To keep walkers engaged and connected, HEC distributes monthly newsletters to walkers that include health tips, healthy food recipes, and profiles a “walker of the month.”

WWF relies on partnerships with local institutions, including food banks, schools, churches, or neighborhood associations, along with one or more resident champions. When a new walker arrives, s/he is greeted by the resident champion leading the group, HEC staff, or other community members. During the program, residents walk around the park or school at their own pace, getting to know each other. Participants often have the opportunity to speak with a medical doctor or police officer through "Walk with a Doc" and "Walk with a Cop" events. After 30 to 60 minutes, participants gather to stretch. Information is shared about local resources, nutrition education, or upcoming community events. Afterward, participants receive a bag of free produce provided by the local food bank.

After consistent weekly participation in WWF, individuals experience increased physical fitness and improved overall health. Other results include reduction in food insecurity, new relationships being developed between neighbors leading to greater community cohesion and community safety, reduced violence in the parks, as well as increased access to resources, such as financial education, as well as CalFresh and health insurance enrollment — all of which increase community pride and are linked to improving the health of the community and its residents.Walk with Friends is a model for walking groups that functions beyond a physical activity and nutrition education program. Walk with Friends has served as a catalyst to address the core needs of the community and as an access point to integrate additional resources for residents.

The Health Education Council (HEC) is a California nonprofit with a mission to cultivate health and well-being in underserved communities by leveraging the power of collaboration. HEC brings together residents, nonprofits, businesses, schools, and government to solve the region’s most significant health problems.