Embracing Flexibility to Advance Healthy Communities Work in Northern Health

Northern Health’s IMAGINE grant funded the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Youth Sustainability Greenhouse, in which youth planted, cared for, and harvested vegetables from seed. Photo courtesy Vince Terstappen for Northern Health.

By Cassidy Paxton, Researcher, BC Healthy Communities

Northern Health (NH) delivers health services across the entire northern two-thirds of British Columbia, spanning urban and rural communities from Atlin to Haida Gwaii to Valemount. Despite the vastness of their coverage area, NH is committed to partnering with local governments across northern BC to support them in working with their unique capacities and strengths as they build healthier communities. Below, find out who NH is, how they focus their partnerships, what resources and services they provide, and read a case study—Northern Rockies Regional Municipality—showcasing how these partnerships and funding opportunities enhance communities and promote health.

Northern Health Authority and Healthy Communities

Serving a dispersed and diverse population of 300,000, NH stretches across 600,000 km2.

“We have a region the size of France and the population of a tiny city in China,” noted Chelan Zirul, Regional Manager of the Healthy Settings team at NH. Chelan oversees Healthy Communities work, in addition to that of Healthy Schools, Health Promoting-Hospitals, and Healthy Workplaces.

One might think that a primarily rural and small population would pose challenges to implementing a Healthy Communities approach; instead, NH has embraced their geography and effectively structured the way they interface with local governments in order to successfully support Healthy Communities development in their region.

NH’s Healthy Community Development (HCD) team is comprised of three advisors, each responsible for one section of the region (Northwest, Interior, and Northeast). The HCD team also consists of health service administrators (HSA) who act as healthy community champions in each of the communities across the region. The healthy community development team supports the health service administrators, local governments, community members, and stakeholders.

Rather than setting their own health-related priorities for the communities they work with, the HCD team instead acts as a conduit between local government officials and local health service staff, connecting them with various health leads within Northern Health and supporting them with resources, data, and funding opportunities.

How does NH collaborate with local governments?

Healthy Communities work has always been carried out by NH informally, but it became an official directive from the Provincial government in 2012. Using the funding provided by the Province, NH created the Partnering for Healthier Communities approach.

This flexible model allows local governments to set their own health priorities and serve as co-chairs, along with NH, on committees across the north. The committees develop local health initiatives based on their identified priorities.

Having an HSA in each community is a sustainable way for NH to form partnerships with local governments. In these small communities where most people know each other, partnerships often arise from informal conversations at community events. The HSA is a trusted member of their community.

Engaging with NHA: Services offered by NH

The HCD team primarily provides support to the HSAs and evidence-based data to communities; however, they also offer the following services and supports:

  • Funding opportunities (i.e. IMAGINE Grant Program);
  • Monthly Health eBrief newsletter to local governments;
  • Webinars and facilitated discussions, when necessary;
  • Promotion of Healthy Communities resources and opportunities for local governments;
  • A one-day Healthy Communities event prior to the North Central Local Government Association AGM (in partnership with the NCLGA).

Jeff Kormos, the HCD lead responsible for the Northwest region of NH, explained that the earlier a community engages with the health authority, the better. “Starting early allows for better feedback and expertise, and we can link them to data, resources, or funding they might not have been aware of.”

IMAGINE grant program: Health happens in communities

NH’s IMAGINE grant program is one of many funding opportunities available to local governments and community organizations committed to building Healthy Communities through grassroots initiatives. Funding from internal partners, including Indigenous Health, Population Health, and Primary and Community Care divisions have made IMAGINE grants possible. Since 2009, IMAGINE grants have provided $2.3 million in funding and supported 822 community projects. Local governments and community organizations can learn more about applying for an IMAGINE grant through Northern Health’s website.

IMAGINE grants in action: Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Youth Sustainability Greenhouse

In the spring of 2016, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality received an IMAGINE grant to fund the development of a sustainability greenhouse. With a short growing season, a greenhouse project would allow the municipality to extend the growing season while getting youth and families more involved in local food production, promote health outcomes through enhanced access to healthy foods and increased food skills, and create a long-lasting project.

The greenhouse served two primary functions in the community:

  1. Access to healthy, local food – The greenhouse allowed youth to grow and harvest foods they could not typically grow without a greenhouse, such as green leaf lettuce, radishes, carrots, squash, tomatoes, garlic, and more.[1]
  2. Education opportunities – Children in the community could come to the greenhouse on a weekly basis to learn about food production and food security. Over the course of the summer, 135 youth in the community participated in these educational sessions and learned about topics ranging from composting to the importance of bees.

The IMAGINE grant provided seed funding to get the greenhouse built, allowing the project to blossom into a sustainable volunteer-led program that will continue year after year. The program has started building partnerships with local food banks to ensure they do not waste any extra produce; instead they donate to those in need as perishable foods are often difficult for food banks to acquire.

Community-led Collaboration

The Healthy Community Development team at NH believes in an upstream approach to addressing the many health challenges facing communities: they want to equip communities with the tools, resources, and funding opportunities needed for local governments and grassroots organizations to take control of the situation and set their own health priorities. Whether it’s through serving as a co-chair on one of the Partnering for Healthier Communities committees across the northern region or receiving seed funding to kick-start a food security initiative in the community, NH is there to support local governments and work together to successfully create a healthy northern region. If your community has a healthy community idea, engage with NH’s HCD team early in the process to make sure you do not miss out on resources or funding to make your project a success.

To get in touch with your local Healthier Communities Development team, contact your local HSA directly, or connect with the Healthy Communities Development team. The PlanH Health Authority Contacts page has more contact information.

[1] Northern Health Matters. (2017). Healthy Living in the North.