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Find out about the $25,000 prize that's driving U.S. communities to find new approaches to public health problems

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

One fading West Virginia coal town leveraged its residents' expertise to make a big impact on health, including lowered blood sugar levels for those with diabetes. A Texas community expanded its trail network to reach an audacious goal: putting a bike path within a half-mile of every resident. And a tribal community in northern New Mexico — the oldest community in the US — drew on its rich cultural heritage to address contemporary health and economic issues. Each of these places won a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize — and $25,000 — for their remarkable efforts.

To find more success stories in public health, RWJF is now accepting applications for its 2016 Culture of Health Prize.Advertisement

Building a culture of health is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires efforts on many fronts, with broad participation — from business, government, faith and citizen groups, and more. Successful applicants for next year's Prize will be communities forging partnerships to drive local change, and health should inform every decision along the way.

The Culture of Health Prize is not a grant. It's a celebration of communities that have already made big strides to put good health in everyone's reach.

Up to 10 communities will be awarded the Prize, each receiving $25,000 as well as the chance to showcase their accomplishments to other cities, towns, and regions across the nation. Communities must show how they are bringing partners together to transform their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces so that good health flourishes everywhere.

Williamson, WV, is one 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize community. Nestled on the Kentucky border, Williamson was home to the legendary Hatfield and McCoy feuds in the 1800s. Today, it's where you'll find the state's highest rates of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes. In the heart of Coal Country, along the Tug Fork River, this tightly knit community has weathered tough times, but it's resilient, and it's building a holistic approach to health that incorporates economic development, community engagement, healthy eating, and physical activity.

"We were working on tourism, we were working on healthy foods, we were working on better housing," said Dino Beckett, D.O., CEO of the Williamson Health and Wellness Center and board chair of the Williamson Redevelopment Authority. "These were all being addressed, but they were being addressed independently."

Then the town created an integrated program called Sustainable Williamson, which led the city toward a shared vision that required limited financial resources but drew on the community's rich history and entrepreneurial spirit. One result was the Health Innovation Hub, which offers local entrepreneurs the chance to present ideas about new healthy enterprises and matches them with local experts to form a business plan — all with an eye toward expanding economic opportunity.

Even the local Health and Wellness Center now takes this approach. One of its programs targets those with or at risk for diabetes and pairs comprehensive clinical care with support from community health workers to help patients not only manage their health but also to manage the social and economic needs that can get in the way of healthy choices. Patients who went through this program experienced a drop in hemoglobin A1c levels by 2.2 percent. "That's huge," said Beckett. "If you were a drug manufacturer and you were able to drop [A1c levels] by just 0.6 percent, you would have a billion-dollar drug."

That lens on how social and economic aspects of residents' lives impact their health also extends to the community's approach to healthy food. Williamson's community gardens and farmer's market have expanded food options while also strengthening the connection among neighbors and providing extra income and business skills. "The community garden has been a way to empower our residents to take a product that they've grown and use it to develop their skills as an entrepreneur by designing market development directly into the garden's design," Beckett said.

Noting that Williamson's streets are dotted with joggers training for the next Williamson monthly 5K race, and markets and community gardens are flush with locally grown produce, Sustainable Williamson's healthy imprint on the community is clear, he said.

"Call it sustainability or call it market-driven development," Beckett said. "The end result is always the same: By linking health and innovation, we ensure the long-term resilience of our community."

Learn more about Williamson and the many other places around the country that are creating a Culture of Health. Keep an eye out for the RWJF Culture of Health Prize 2015 winners, which will be announced this fall. And if your community is on a journey to better health, be sure to apply for the Prize. The application deadline is November 12.

Learn about what it takes to create healthier communities here

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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