City leaders in both the public and private sectors are working hard to make Kingsport and Sullivan County one of the healthiest regions in the state and even the nation.
Their efforts began in 2010, when the Greater Kingsport Family YMCA received a Pioneering Healthier Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to combat obesity. From that grant, the nonprofit Healthy Kingsport organization was born, with the focus of promoting healthy food and beverage choices and increased physical activity as well as tobacco cessation.
“At the time, Kingsport had been ranked as one of the unhealthiest cities in Tennessee, and that got the attention of our city leaders,” says Abigail Weaver, marketing and communications director for the Greater Kingsport Family YMCA. “They said, ‘Okay, we need to do something about this,’ and they commissioned a committee that transformed into what is now known as Healthy Kingsport.”
Making the Right Choices
Among Healthy Kingsport’s successful programs is the Live Sugarfreed campaign, which tackles obesity and type 2 diabetes by encouraging people to drink water instead of sugary beverages. Businesses, schools and churches adopted healthier beverage strategies, and the city converted water fountains on municipal properties into water bottle refilling stations. Meanwhile, an Eat Good – Feel Good campaign encourages restaurants, corporate cafeterias and other food vendors to add healthier choices to their menus. Healthy Kingsport also worked with the city to make the Kingsport Aquatic Center and associated Greater Kingsport Family YMCA smoke- and electronic cigarette-free.
“The whole idea is that if you make the default choices healthy ones — if that's all there is to eat or drink — then people are naturally going to eat healthier and drink healthier, which improves the overall health and wellness of the community,” Weaver says. “You have to take baby steps to end up with noticeable change over time, and it has to be a collaboration across multiple organizations. That's what Healthy Kingsport is there for. If it was just the YMCA trying to do this, we would fail.”
Building Healthy Businesses
Healthy Kingsport sponsors the annual Walk Across Tennessee challenge, a 12-week program that challenges teams of five to walk the equivalent of 585 miles, the distance across the state of Tennessee. The Bank of Tennessee had 11 participating teams, led by chairman and CEO Roy Harmon Jr.
“Simple things like water, sugar-free eating and walking go a long way in helping people get started on improving their health. There is comfort in knowing that others are making the effort and that makes it easier for you to get going down that same path,” Harmon says. “Our executives are expected to lead by example, so we signed up 11 teams [for Walk Across Tennessee] and took off. There is always a competitive spirit among our teams and we publish results internally to help with motivation.”
Success in Numbers
Kandy Childress, Healthy Kingsport executive director, says one of the program’s greatest successes is its creation of so many partnerships with local businesses. The organization provides “Small Starts” tool kits full of best practices and tangible resources to more than 150 businesses and places of worship. These partnerships helped land Kingsport on the list of the nine Healthier Tennessee communities in 2016.
“We’re doing this for the good of the community because it’s very important to us that everyone has the best opportunity to be healthy and to live the longest possible life with the best health outcomes,” Childress says. “But there’s also an economic development benefit. We know that it would significantly improve the talent recruiting ability if our region was known as not only an incredible outdoor mecca, but also as one of the healthiest regions in the country. We also hope our efforts will help attract new businesses to our region. When you have an educated, healthy workforce, there's really no stopping you.”
Todd Norris, Wellmont Health System senior vice president for System Advancement and president of the Wellmont Foundation, agrees. Wellmont Health System is a Healthy Kingsport founding partner, and continues to financially support the organization.
“Companies want to do business in vital communities that have a healthy, reliable workforce. We have so much going for us. Our beautiful region is one of the best places in the country to live and work — and it should, by all rights, be one of the healthiest,” Norris says. “The cost of poor health is an issue for business. It has impacts for employee productivity, retention and of course for the cost of the health-plan benefits a company provides. For all of those reasons, investing in the health and wellness of our community is a sound investment for employers and as an economic development strategy.”