Three Northeast Ohio cities are among 50 across the country to receive $60,000 grants to support city leaders’ collaboration in improving health in low-income communities.

Akron, Canton and Youngstown were each awarded money from the Reinvestment Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

They announced Tuesday a total of $3 million in awards for the Invest Health initiative, which focuses on community features that drive health, such as access to safe and affordable housing, quality jobs and places to play and exercise.

“The intent is to pull individuals together from different sectors to see how we can partner to make neighborhood changes to reduce health disparities and improve health outcomes, using a little different of an approach,” said Terry Albanese, Akron’s assistant to the mayor for education, health and families. “It’s not common for diverse sectors to pull together to try to make changes in a neighborhood that are sustainable. So this is what Invest Health is all about: guiding us in that process.”

Mid-size cities (with populations between 50,000 and 400,000) were eligible to apply for the grants. These cities face some of the nation’s deepest challenges — such as poor health and entrenched poverty — but also offer a foundation for strategies to potentially boost local economies, according to a news release.

Applicants were required to form five-member teams including representatives from the public sector, community development, and an anchor institution, preferably academic or health-related.

The city of Akron teamed up with Summa Health, Testa Companies, East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation and Rev. Diana Swoope from Arlington Church of God to focus on Akron’s Middbury neighborhood.

The money funds the teams’ travel to four convenings between now and the end of 2017 and a couple other gatherings that focus more specifically on cities’ areas of interest. The leftover money is used to support further collaboration.

These focus areas are subject to change as the teams further explore topics, but Akron’s primary focus area is on safety and environment with a secondary focus on housing. Youngstown will focus on housing with a secondary look at transportation. And Canton has prioritized education and training with a secondary focus on food production and systems.

“It hasn’t been in the past that cities paid that much attention to their impact on health,” Albanese said. “We’ve recently passed a resolution to include health in all policies, so we’re beginning to look at all the decisions that we make across the city. How we spend money everywhere from roads to community centers to schools and to parks and recreation — what is the impact of this decision on health?”

Amanda High, chief of strategic initiatives at Reinvestment Fund, said it is “really very rare” to see collaboration between the community development sector and the health care sector.

“It happens in an ad hoc way, but it does not happen strategically as often as it ought to if we are really going to move the needle on health outcomes for low income people and places,” High said. “And the hypothesis is that if collaboration among city sector stakeholders around health outcomes was more deliberate that we would see some increased momentum in terms of improvement of health equity.”

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by Lydia Coutré