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White House Environmental Justice Forum

December 15, 2010
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon. I want to thank Dr. Bullard for that nice introduction. The fact that we have about half the Cabinet here today is not just because Nancy Sutley and Lisa Jackson is a very convincing person. It’s also a tribute to the years of hard work by leaders like Dr. Bullard and many of you here today to raise awareness of how environmental justice affects us all.

I’ll admit that environmental justice hasn’t always been the top priority at the Department of Health and Human Services in recent years.

But I’m glad we’re having this panel today, because with Lisa’s leadership and with commitment from all of us in this room, that is about to change.

There’s nothing more important than health. Health is freedom. When we live longer, healthier lives, we have more time to do our jobs, volunteer in our neighborhoods, play with our children, and watch our grandchildren grow up.

Health is also the foundation of our country’s prosperity. Healthy adults are more productive workers. Healthy children are better students. Healthy families can make bigger contributions to their communities.

And today, we understand better than ever before that our health is not just determined by what happens in the doctor’s office or operating room.

It depends on where you live, work, go to school, and play, what you eat and drink, the air you breathe, and how you get around. And we understand that these environmental factors are also at the root of many of our health disparities.

We also know that there are huge steps we can take to improve health have nothing to do with treating a disease or injury.

It could be bringing a supermarket to a low-income neighborhood, so local families have somewhere they can buy fresh produce. It could be redesigning a neighborhood to make it more walkable, so there’s less car pollution, which can make asthma worse. It could be prohibiting smoking in public spaces, so people aren’t surrounded by harmful second hand smoke.

These can be some of the most effective strategies we have for improving health.

And over the last two years, this Administration and our department have taken unprecedented steps to support these community efforts across the country.

We’re doing it through programs Communities Putting Prevention to Work, a key part of the Recovery Act which is funding some of the most promising local strategies across the country for promoting wellness and reducing chronic disease.

Over the last two years, I’ve visited about a dozen of these sites, from a housing project in Chicago where they’ve banned smoking, so that kids can grow up breathing clean air to an urban farm in Boston where students are growing fresh fruits and vegetables that are sold at local farmer’s markets.

Our hope is that these communities can become models for the rest of the country, so if you’re a mayor or a school principal or a neighborhood activist and you want to understand how to improve health in your city or school or community, we’ll be able to point to these examples and say: this is what works.

And our investment in prevention didn’t stop with the Recovery Act. One of the key parts of the new health reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is a $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund that will invest in similar programs across the country.

And the new law also contains a new community transformation grant program that builds on the Economic Empowerment Zone model but for health.

Using public-private partnerships, communities will be able to pursue comprehensive strategies to improve health, whether it’s promoting better nutrition for children or creating safer neighborhoods where people can walk around.

Like Empowerment Zones, these grants will recognize that the people who often know best how to improve health in community are the people living and working there.

Congress has not yet authorized funds for these grants, but we hope they will follow through on one of the best investments we can make in our country’s health.

With these programs, we are building a healthier America one community at a time. It isn’t easy. As our Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh sometimes says, “an ounce of prevention can take a ton of work.” But we know it can be done because communities across the country are already doing it.

Our department also continues to support research into the connections between environment and health, especially through our National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the CDC.

And we’re putting a special focus on collaborating with minority communities whose health often suffers the most from environmental factors, recognizing that conducting research in partnership with community residents can build on local knowledge and skills.

To give you one example, we’ve been working closely with the Navajo Nation in New Mexico to study the possible health consequences of uranium exposure. And to further support that work, we recently awarded a $3 million grant that will allow scientists to study the link between uranium exposure and reproduction.

Building these close relationships is allowing us to gain new insights into how the environment affects some of our most vulnerable communities.

In our department, we understand the important connection between our environment and our country’s health.

That’s why this year for the first time ever, we’ve made the social determinants of health a key focus of our Healthy People 2020 initiative. Every ten years we release Healthy People, which provides a roadmap for how to improve the health of our Nation over the next decade.

This year, the report establishes a new core goal of “creating social and physical environments that promote good health for all” that will put the environment at the center of our health agenda.

But we also know that our department and even the broader public health sector cannot do this work alone.

If we want to serve healthier school lunches, which are where our kids get so much of their nutrition, we need to work with the Departments of Agriculture and Education. If we want to design neighborhoods where it’s easier to walk or bike, we need to work with the Department of Transportation. If we want to work to create safer homes, we need to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s why each of these agencies in addition to several others have seats on the new National Prevention Council created by the Affordable Care Act along with me and our chair, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

That Council is currently working together to develop a new National Prevention Strategy that will be released early next year. And we’ll be working together to carry it out as we move forward.

But if we need all these other partners at the table when we talk about improving health, we also need to have the health community at the table when we talk about urban planning or food policy or responding to an environmental disaster.

We saw that earlier this year in our response to the Gulf oil spill. Whether it was food safety experts determining whether seafood from the gulf was safe to eat, health workers providing care for workers who participated in the clean-up efforts, or mental health counselors providing care in communities devastated by the spill, health professionals played a critical role.

That’s why our department is guided by the philosophy of “health in all policies.” “Health in all policies” means that any time we make a decision, we should be asking: what are the health consequences.

And I also want to point out that by building healthy communities, we’ll also be building resilient communities. The same network of local care providers that can help you manage your diabetes can be the front line of defense in a public health emergency. The stronger the baseline health of a community, the less vulnerable they are to new health threats like the H1N1 flu.

The main message I want you to take away today is that our department is eager to work with you. Over the last two years, we have made a conscious effort to think about health more broadly, both inside and outside the doctor’s office.

While we will continue to make it a priority to collaborate more effectively across government, we also know that the kind of change we are seeking often start at the community level. Often, the best thing we can do is to support, invest in, and publicize these efforts to help them spread.

So I want to thank you all for being here. I hope you have productive discussions. And I look forward to working together to build a healthier, more prosperous country, one building, one block, one neighborhood at a time.

Thank you.