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New signs highlight an array of fresh produce at the Los Compadres Market and Restaurant. HEAC staff built a relationship with the owner over three years.

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Santa Ana Walk-To-School

Walk-To-School Initiative Improves Santa Ana's Health By Improving Neighborhood Walkability

In Santa Ana, as in many communities around the world, the primary way that most children get to school is on foot. There are lots of good reasons to walk to school: It's free; as a daily physical activity it enhances children's health; it also reduces traffic congestion and improves air quality.

"Santa Ana is already considered a city that walks, often by necessity," says Sandra Viera, Associate Director of Policy for Latino Health Access, local lead agency for the statewide collaborative Healthy Eating, Active Communities (HEAC), which aims to fight the growing childhood obesity epidemic in California and to develop policy changes that will reduce the risk factors for diabetes and obesity. "Low-income families might have only one or no car, so everyone ends up walking more."

In densely populated Santa Ana, the challenge has been to improve the safety and physical condition of the streets used by children who walk and bike to school.

International Walk to School Day was started in 2000 to encourage more children to walk and to help address the barriers that might be preventing them. Local advocates decided to leverage this one-day event that takes place annually in October, and thanks to an ambitious collaboration among Santa Ana schools, health activists, and city and county agencies, it has led to changes that benefit the city's residents all year long.

"Parents need to feel their children are safe walking their neighborhoods," Viera explains. "But the city has a high pedestrian fatality rate. There are also broken street lights, abandoned buildings, trash and graffiti, and gang activity. In 2008 a child was shot and killed in front of his school. Walk to School Day provides an opportunity for the community to focus on these issues. It enables us to address health and public safety in the same breath."

A key strategy has been to involve students themselves in every step of the process, beginning with a neighborhood Walkability Assessment. "In 2007, the students of Walker Elementary School led the Walk Audit. With the help of their teachers and resources from our Walk to School Day Tool Kit, the youth conducted their assessment, compiled the results and presented them at a Walk to School Day media event, to the School Board, and at a meeting with city agencies," says Kelly Broberg, program supervisor of the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Program for the County of Orange. "In our second year, the students of Garfield Elementary School took the lead. "

On the Walk Audit, the students were accompanied by school staff, the Police Department, Latino Health Access, the Orange County Health Care Agency, and a Los Angeles Times reporter. Collecting data and photographs, students identified and reported problems including broken sidewalks, poorly marked crosswalks, and the need for crossing guards. They made a point of completing their assessment and sharing their findings with the Police Department and School Board prior to the actual Walk to School Day so that they could make the most of media coverage on the day itself. Media events include a press conference at the lead school and a walk-audit with a local newspaper reporter.

"It's very well planned out," says Viera. "We make sure we capture everything in the audits, all of the problems. But then, by tying it into something positive—like Walk to School Day—it doesn't come off as an attack or as pointing fingers. We stress that everyone has a stake in making the community safer, healthier, and more beautiful as well."

The response from city and county officials has been more than positive; the actions they have taken have visibly transformed the environment.

"I didn't know it could be so easy," marvels Broberg. "We've seen crosswalks fixed and street lights installed. More importantly we've developed continuing relationships with Traffic Department engineers and with the City Planning Department. With funding from the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center we've also been able to facilitate a workshop process involving city agencies and community residents to build on the walk audits."

Santa Ana Unified School District superintendent Jane Russo and the leadership of the District Wellness Committee have been instrumental in the program's success. The Walk to School Day Tool Kit is being distributed to every school in Santa Ana and the event has become a fixture on school calendars, informing ongoing discussions of students' health and safety.

"You do something three or four times and it becomes culture," says Frances Byfield, Ed.D., administrator of special projects for the Santa Ana Unified School District. A questionnaire completed by 196 students at Garfield Elementary School shows that three out of four students are walking to school every day—a rate three times the national average. (Across the United States, even among those children who live within a mile of their school, only 25% are regular walkers.)

"Walk to School Day has also built critical momentum for our policy work with city agencies," Viera adds. "And this year, we're shifting the focus from the walk to school to 'how safe is it beyond that walk?'" Using an enhanced audit tool, students will be looking at neighborhood blight and crime—at social problems in addition to problems in the physical environment that can inhibit walking. Longer-term planning is also underway: An upcoming "Complete Streets" workshop aims to incorporate pedestrian issues into the city's General Plan.

For more information:

Learn about the community of Santa Ana.

Sandra Viera, Associate Director of Policy, Latino Health Access, (714) 542-7792 ext. 3107,

Kelly Broberg, Orange County Health Care Agency, (714) 834-2572,

Frances Byfield, Ed.D., Santa Ana Unified School District, (714) 558-5528,

Orange County "Walk 2 School Day" web site, Orange County Health Care Agency::

International Walk to School Day web site: