I’m pleased to share the Access Arizona space this month with Suzanne Pfister, President and CEO of Vitalyst Health Foundation. The Foundation’s 2017 Healthy Communities Initiative is a statewide and local collaboration that appropriately aligns to this health and wellness edition. Suzanne provides insights for us in the Golden Corridor to consider for action.  

– Evelyn Casuga,
CAC and Access Arizona

You may not know it, but where you live is proving to be more important to your health than your genes. A Phoenix area map released by the Robert Wood Johnson and Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University shows a 14-year life expectancy difference between a Scottsdale zip code (85 years) and a South Phoenix zip code (71 years).

It is becoming clear that where we live directly impacts how we live. And factors in our everyday life have a big effect on our health. Access to a good education, economic opportunity and safe housing are all positive factors. On the flip side, stores offering unhealthy foods and limited opportunities for exercise, walking and cycling can weigh us down — literally. Other influencing factors include access to public transit, proximity to toxic agents from highways and industry, as well as issues of community segregation and isolation.

Of course access to healthcare matters, — but perhaps not as much as we might think. No matter what happens with changes to or the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, we must address the policies, systems and environments that have a direct effect on health.

How will this be accomplished? It will take coordinated efforts from organizations and agencies throughout Arizona. Vitalyst Health Foundation has been engaged in conversation, engagement and action with a number of partners around the state. In fact, we have dubbed our efforts The 2017 Year of Healthy Communities. Step by step, we are making progress. All across the state, hundreds of organizations are doing the hard, focused work needed to transform the health of our communities. Here are just a few examples:

1. In Phoenix, the city passed two ordinances in support of Complete Streets policies: design and structural changes that make streets welcoming and useful environments for all users – pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, people with disabilities – and not just for cars. Complete Streets not only make streets more effective in connecting people, but they also spur economic growth, improve health and enhance quality of life.

2. Across the state, schools are embracing “shared use,” the practice of opening school yards, gyms and libraries for community use. Children and their parents need to move more, but neighborhood parks are not always available – and building new ones requires new funding, while perfectly suitable school facilities are locked up on evenings and weekends. Places like the Nadaburg School District in Wittman, with help from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and other funders, launched a new plan to open gyms and schoolyards at night and on Saturdays. Further support will provide transportation to students who can’t easily get here on the weekend. It puts families on the right track toward a healthier community and helps to support children who are healthy, alert and ready to learn.

3. In Payson, they’re innovating. Concerned about conserving water, in 2012 the city opted for one 165-plot community garden with drip irrigation that produces for its gardeners as well as local food banks. For four years, residents have shared, learned, socialized and grown together. More recently, Payson residents and business owners have raised over $16,000 to support an apple orchard adjacent to the farmer’s market that will feature the same heirloom apples planted by early settlers here. In February 2017, the Town Council approved the plan to transform part of an underutilized public utility property into this future gathering space in the heart of Old Town Payson, featuring park pathways that will meander through fields of lavender and hops. It will be a venue where local businesses and the community will “grow” together.

We need residents, neighborhoods, cities and towns, and businesses large and small, to join in with the chorus of voices that recognizes the importance of well-being and how our surroundings affect our quality – and length – of life. I would personally like to invite the public to participate — by providing resources, attending our partner events, joining an upcoming webinar, or attending a workshop. Connect with us at

Suzanne Pfister is president and CEO of Vitalyst Health Foundation, on Twitter: @vitalysthealth and Facebook: facebook/vitalysthealthaz.