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Clearing a Path to School That’s Healthy and Safe


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

Amid the nationwide campaign to get kids moving more, one key piece – for those who walk or bike to school, as well as those who would like to start – is making that trip as safe and enjoyable as possible.

That’s the passion of Sara Zimmerman and her colleagues at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership: advocating policy options that can pave the way for a safe walking and biking environment.

Zimmerman came to the National Partnership from a more wide-ranging background in nonprofit work. “I’ve always worked on things related to social justice and making communities vibrant and healthy,” she noted. “But I didn’t originally do it with the language of health.” After earning a law degree, she spent time on workers’ rights, housing stability and other issues. At ChangeLab Solutions, a nonprofit focused on overcoming legal and policy barriers to healthy communities, she got involved in helping children achieve a healthy weight.

“It just brought together a lot of the different ways that I think about things that don’t go well in our communities, and working more proactively on making us healthier,” she said. From there, she joined the National Partnership about a year and a half ago.

The trip to and from school may seem like “this small time of day,” Zimmerman said. “But of course, like so many of these things, you tug on that string and you’re tugging on the whole fabric of kids’ lives.”

In particular, for kids in lower-income communities, that fabric may include dangerous streets—not just because of the risk of crime, but also because they’re designed solely for car traffic, with dangerous intersections and bus stops nowhere near crosswalks. “We’ve underinvested in the streets in low-income communities for decades,” Zimmerman said. The federal Safe Routes to School program, which operates in all 50 states, has sought to expand the tools available to local advocates trying to change that, and finding and sharing data about initiatives that work.

One example is the Walking School Bus, a program in which kids are organized to journey on foot to and from school together, providing safety in numbers and a fun group activity, and easing the minds of working parents who might struggle to find the time to accompany their children every day. Often, parents or other adult volunteers join the caravan. “Sometimes they even carry a little paper school bus along with them,” Zimmerman said.

The National Partnership has partnered with low-income communities around the country to implement these kinds of initiatives, as well as to advocate for a “complete streets” approach to municipal planning that ensures that roadways are safe not only for cars, but also for pedestrians and users of public transportation.

In addition to being represented on Voices for Healthy Kids’ Strategic Advisory Committee, the National Partnership administers the movement’s Active Places hub, connecting advocates and providing useful background research.

The organization’s overarching goal is to keep goals of equity at the forefront, constantly asking how policies do or don’t support children’s well-being, Zimmerman said.

In a world in which sometimes skewed perceptions of risk lead many middle-class parents to feel concern about the idea of their kids walking to school, Zimmerman noted that it is useful to remember that other parents don’t have the luxury of dropping their children off by car every day.

But a holistic approach to making neighborhood routes safer for foot and bike travel can lessen everyone’s concerns—and make the trip to and from school a healthier part of a child’s day.