A jogger runs underneath the Jones Street bridge which has been decorated with holiday lights. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio is one of two Texas cities awarded a gold medal by nonprofit CityHealth.

A nonprofit that evaluates local health priorities of the country’s largest cities awarded San Antonio a gold medal for its efforts toward implementing policies that improve health and quality of life for its residents.

For the past three years CityHealth, an initiative of the public health advocacy nonprofit de Beaumont Foundation, has rated the 40 most populous cities in the United States on how they fare in nine policy areas including healthy food procurement, complete streets, and indoor air quality.  

“What has been a really fascinating story on a national scale is that San Antonio went from no medal in 2017 when the first report came out and skyrocketed up to gold,” CityHealth President Shelley Hearne told the Rivard Report on Friday. “Not only is it in an elite pack, but I also think this meteoric trajectory in San Antonio is a story in itself about how the city is committed to creating the best opportunity for residents to live healthy, vibrant, thriving lives.”

San Antonio is one of eight cities in the U.S. to receive a gold medal in 2019, and one of two in Texas, with Dallas, like San Antonio, improving its overall medal status from silver to gold. 

The report released Wednesday highlights the city’s recent effort toward ensuring that healthy foods are available on City-owned properties including school cafeterias, daycare centers, hospitals, and in vending machines in parks, Hearne said.

Kathleen Shields, assistant director of community health with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said in an email that the City recently “passed a new administrative directive that requires that all foods and beverages purchased with City funds must meet specific nutrition guidelines,” and is “in the process of updating the San Antonio Healthy Vending Guidelines in order to comply with the American Heart Association’s Healthy Vending Standards.”

Updating the current guidelines would include reducing the milligrams of sodium allowed per package from 250 to 240, and including only snacks that do not contain trans fats.

“The healthy food procurement policy was put in the CityHealth package to help address the obesity epidemic in this country, which is having enormous impacts on health in this country right now,” Hearne said, noting that cities with significant obesity problems are spending over $50 million a year to address the issue. “If you’re hungry at 3 o’clock, and you go to the vending machine and your only choice is candy, that’s not a choice. That’s practically pushing sugar.”

Shields said that in addition to adopting specific nutritional guidelines on City-owned and operated properties, “Metro Health is in the process of creating a step-by-step toolkit to assist other businesses or organizations in implementing a similar healthy food procurement policy” which they will share with those “interested in making the same healthy kind of change.”

In addition to the community health benefit that comes with increased availability of healthy foods, Shields said that data is showing that “places that sell nutritious foods are increasing their business.”

“The more choice you actually give, and the more opportunity to have healthy nutritious foods, the more business traffic you’re going to create,” Shields said.

To achieve an overall gold medal, San Antonio had to achieve five or more gold medals across each of the nine policy areas. San Antonio earned a  gold medal in six of the nine policy categories, including raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, the City-funded Pre-K 4 SA program, and enacting an earned paid sick leave ordinance. San Antonio achieved a silver medal for its food safety and restaurant safety policies. 

San Antonio received no medal for its policies on affordable housing and inclusionary zoning policies, and no medal for its safer alcohol sales policies, which would require the City to put in place stricter policies that govern where, when, and how alcohol may be sold in a neighborhood.

“It’s important for cities to look at a range of issues from affordable housing to quality early education because these are all evidence-based policies that have been working in other cities, that we know are pragmatic difference-makers in improving health outcomes,” Hearne said.

On Nov. 23, representatives with CityHealth will present gold medals to San Antonio City Council members and health department officials at the National League of Cities Summit, a conference where local leaders convene and collaborate on solutions to common challenges, that runs from Nov. 20-23.

“San Antonio will be getting a big grand finale shout out for its public health efforts and its city leaders who are showing the nation how to deliver results that can make their residents safer, healthier, and more productive.” Hearne said. 

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.