Healthiest Cities and Counties Community Spotlight Series: Hillsborough County, Florida

Tags: Health

The Hillsborough County Garden Steps project has identified food deserts and walkability as two of the county's biggest problems. In order to address these concerns, the project has proposed creating community gardens with easy pedestrian and bicycle access in identified food deserts. The goal is to improve health equity and population health by increasing easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Hillsborough County, FL: Garden Steps 

What are some of the greatest health challenges that the members in your community face?

Many neighborhoods within Hillsborough County are food deserts, which are areas of low income and low access to grocery stores. Several of these neighborhoods, specifically in east and north Tampa, also have high estimated prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health conditions. When combined with a discontinuous pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure network, residents face significant challenges in accessing nutritious food stores, medical centers, and other places that contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

What are some of the health initiatives, specifically related to the Challenge's work, that are taking place in your community?

The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization and Planning Commission are pursuing Health in All Policies pilot projects with the local Department of Health. Health in All Policies is an approach to integrating health in decision-making. The MPO's approach involves determining ways to evaluate major transportation projects on the health impacts they will convey to nearby neighborhoods. Furthermore, the organization is discussing ways to evaluate regional scenarios for the Tampa Bay area's 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan update through the Health in All Policies lens. The Long Range Transportation Plan is a public policy document that priorities the region's transportation needs with funding.

Additionally, the MPO has worked on complete streets projects in recent years. Complete streets require streets to be designed with consideration for all road users, not just automobiles. A complete street study was conducted on Hillsborough County's George Road from 2013 to 2015, and a health impact assessment of the redesign was performed in 2016.

In partnership with the Green Artery Neighborhood Coalition, the MPO has performed two Walk-Bike studies to evaluate connections for a continuous perimeter trail connecting dozens of Tampa's neighborhoods. As many of the communities along this trail have incomplete sidewalk networks and are located along high-traffic corridors, this perimeter trail will provide important recreational and connectivity options for nearby residents. Improvements in access and recreation opportunities provide quality of life, economic, fitness, and health benefits.

Can you share either a personal story or an observation that might help illustrate the impact this initiative and/or the Challenge has had on you/your community?

When reaching out to community organizations in East Tampa to develop partnerships for a community garden, the Garden Steps team had several interactions with community residents. One resident, who mentioned she had considered leaving her neighborhood, was so delighted at the prospect of a community garden that she said she would stay. Engaging and working alongside residents and community organizations has been the central component of Garden Steps, and experiences such as these have bolstered our motivation to make Tampa a more livable, healthy and connected environment for all persons.

Have you experienced any major successes or challenges so far with this initiative? If so, can you elaborate?

One challenge the Garden Steps team has faced is access to consistently-released and sub-county scale chronic disease data that will allow us to evaluate the impact of our project. To overcome this, we have begun looking at adjacent data: do the areas under consideration have a high proportion of zero vehicle households with little pedestrian infrastructure present? Is there open space or medical facilities nearby, and do residents need to cross dangerous roads to reach those places? Access to the means of wellness is a critical component of healthier cities, and the environment can often impede the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. In reviewing the health improvements that new gardens might bring to communities, we are concerned with the whole spectrum of opportunities and benefits.

Another challenge is that many of the residents who are eager to participate in a community garden are not familiar with how to cook their produce. This is a challenge we encountered among many interested seniors in East Tampa. Working with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, leaders of Garden Steps partner the Coalition of Community Gardens have recognized the need to teach gardeners about the nutritional content of their produce and utilize hands-on cooking training. The Tampa Heights garden in Central Tampa has been engaged with youth and other gardeners in a garden-to-table program, one that will form the framework for the cooking courses in other locations throughout the city. We are therefore partnering with groups (such as Healthy Eating Everyday) with the experience and expertise for teaching such skills.

Can you describe the progress of your project? What has been accomplished?

The Garden Steps team has identified sites for three potential community gardens in and near food deserts in the community. Guided by the knowledge that most community gardens fail within two years, the team has been engaged in identifying community support for these gardens, capacity building with gardeners, and identification of the situational challenges that residents may face in investing time in gardening and attending skill-building classes. The Garden Steps team has been continuously involved with community partners to assess the interest of residents and community groups in developing and sustaining the new gardens.

The Garden Steps team is currently working with the City of Tampa to design and establish fifty park and garden wayfaring signs across the city. These signs will provide a pedestrian-scale guide to accessing the several existing gardens across the City of Tampa.
In selecting potential garden sites, the Garden Steps team collected data on chronic disease, transportation, and other interconnected indicators. The team visualized this data in a publicly-accessible Hillsborough County Health Atlas, a web based mapping tool with easy to use layers of information about our communities. This tool was launched on the MPO's website in November 2017. So far, the tool has been used by the Department of Health and community groups to collect information on local health baselines. As the team evaluates new data, it is routinely assessing its inclusion in a future update to the Health Atlas. View health data for your community

Garden Steps Map

What does it mean to be part of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge?

Being part of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge means to be part of a network aimed at evidence-based approaches to healthier communities. We have taken inspiration from the successes shared by other participants in the Challenge, and hope to inspire a few of our own.


Adapted from the original post on the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge Learning Network. For more information on this and other Healthiest Cities and County Challenge Projects, visit the Challenge website at

About Blaire Bryant (Full Bio)

Health Program Manager

Blaire Bryant is the Program Manager for Health at the National Association of Counties. In this capacity, she manages programs that provide information, training and assistance to county officials to help meet the emerging challenges they face in their communities.

Counties across the nation have accepted the challenge to make measurable changes in their community  as Finalists in the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. This County Spotlight Series highlights county Challenge teams’ progress and achievements.

Click here to view the full series.

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