Santa Cruz County, Calif. wins Roadmaps to Health Prize

By Charles Taylor


Santa Cruz County, Calif. is one of six communities nationwide — and the only county — to receive one of this year’s inaugural Robert Wood Johnson Foundation “RWJF Roadmaps to Health” prizes.

The $25,000 cash award honors outstanding community partnerships that are helping people lead healthier lives.

“The award is great recognition for the community collaboration that the county has with community-based organizations, young people in Santa Cruz and businesses,” said County Supervisor John Leopold, who was in Princeton, N.J. with several colleagues from partner agencies to receive the award.

“And we’ve been able to move the needle on many different health-related issues; this recognition is a great sign that we’re on the right track,” he added. The Pacific coastal county, population 262,382, lies about 65 miles south of San Francisco at the north end of the Monterey Bay.

Among the programs RWJF cited are one that provides health insurance to virtually every child in the county. The Healthy Kids of Santa Cruz County program ensures children have access to comprehensive medical, dental, vision and psychological care. The program is funded through a variety of sources, including federal and state grants, county funds and private contributions, Leopold said. Another is an alternative-to-incarceration program that provides education, employment, treatment and social services to get people’s lives back on track.

Scott MacDonald, the county’s chief probation officer, noted that the link between public health and criminal justice might not be obvious to all, but there is a connection.

“The other issue that intersects with health is that a lot of what’s driven the huge fivefold increase in imprisonment has not been crime quite frankly, but it’s been what we’ve chosen to incarcerate over,” he said. “And primarily it’s drug offenders and substance abuse issues. So what we’re trying to do is get better substance abuse treatment as a way to interrupt that cycle of crime and recidivism — which really is a health issue as much as it is a criminal justice issue.”

He added that the county’s Custody Alternatives Program allows people who are providing for children to continue to care for them, and lends structure and support for people already living at the margins.

Leopold said the county’s ongoing Community Assessment Project Report has served as a guide, providing data that helps the county to pinpoint areas of focus —  whether the issue is childhood obesity or curbing binge drinking. The United Way of Santa Cruz County has been conducting the assessment for nearly 20 years. It identifies goals the community wants to achieve while benchmarking where it stands on indicators such as air quality, unemployment, high school graduation and crime rates.

The recognition of the county extends to all of its partners, including the United Way, local businesses and nonprofits, and cities within the county.

Photo courtesy of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Members of Jóvenes SANOS (Spanish for Healthy Youth), an advocacy and leadership group in Santa Cruz County, Calif., survey local restaurants near a high school to assess whether they serve healthful meals, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

For example, a youth-led effort in the city of Watsonville found there were very few healthy food options around the area high school. The teens went to the City Council and argued for — and gained — new health policies that encouraged new healthy restaurants and rewarded existing restaurants for adding healthier food choices to their menus. More recently, they’ve been working to bring healthy vending machine options to the county’s metro transit stations.

Mary Lou Goeke is executive director of United Way of Santa Cruz County. She said stakeholders in creating a healthy Santa Cruz realize that their fates are intertwined: “Our public safety officers would not succeed without our education leaders; our education leaders would not succeed without our faith communities; and our business communities and our social service sector need all the community to be involved.”

Many of those entities will benefit from county’s prize money, Leopold said. “We’re going to be using it to fund the programs that we talked about in our application, but the recognition will also help us draw attention from people in our community, other funders, and it’s also recognition from a national organization that our collaborative approach is a successful approach,” he said.

The six Roadmaps prize winners were selected from among 160 applicants nationwide. Also recognized were New Orleans; Cambridge, Mass.; Fall River, Mass.; Manistique, Mich; and Minneapolis.

“These prize winners represent leadership at its finest — trailblazers creating a culture of health,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF president and CEO. “We hope it will inspire others to take bold steps to improve health in their communities.”

The RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize is awarded annually. The call for applications for year two of the prize will be released on March 20. On that date, RWJF, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, will also release its annual County Health Rankings. Visit for more information.