[Daily Bulletin]

The connection between a community’s physical and economic health has come into greater focus in recent years as income disparity has widened, health care costs have risen and quality-of-life research has taken on a new level of sophistication.

This return on investment is arguably the greatest single reason we’ve seen a proliferation of “healthy communities” initiatives across our region and the United States. More and more, influence leaders recognize that access to healthy foods, pre-emptive health services, physical exercise, quality housing and affordable transportation improve economic opportunities for individuals, families and entire communities.

In the Inland Empire, we’ve seen these efforts take root and flourish in communities such as Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands and Rialto. The San Bernardino Department of Public Health lists more than two dozen cities and sub-regions that it currently partners with on Healthy Communities programs.

Cumulatively, initiatives such as these have the potential to create billions of dollars in economic benefits for the nation as a whole.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 86 cents of every dollar spent on health care are tied to chronic illnesses often preventable through healthier lifestyles. The Institute of Medicine reports that chronic diseases reduce productivity and economic output in the U.S. by $1 trillion a year. And a study by the Health Enhancement Research Organization and Brigham Young University showed that employees who eat healthy all day long were 25 percent more likely to have higher job performance, while absenteeism was 27 percent lower for workers who ate healthy and regularly exercised.

As obvious as the solution is, it’s not an easy one to achieve — particularly in low-income neighborhoods, where the ingredients for an unhealthy life are ever present. Individuals in poverty have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, are more likely to smoke and are less likely to exercise — all leading to higher levels of preventable illness.

One reason is that most impoverished neighborhoods are located in food deserts, far away from healthy food options and leaving residents at the mercy of convenience stores and fast food establishments. Nationally, the average food stamp recipient lives 1.8 miles from the nearest supermarket, while one in seven Americans suffers from food insecurity, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Quality affordable housing is another significant challenge for low-income neighborhoods. The fact that Southern California remains one of the most expensive regions in the country only exacerbates the problem, leading to overcrowding, illegal housing options and homelessness.

Fortunately, programs such as the BUILD Health Challenge — a partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the deBeaumont Foundation, the Advisory Board Company and the Colorado Health Foundation — have emerged to provide grant fording for worthy local initiatives.

The Healthy Ontario Initiative, which in 2015 was awarded a $250,000 BUILD grant, is both indicative of the rise in healthy communities programs and unique in its own right. Envisioned by the city of Ontario, the program brings together a wide variety of stakeholders, including Partners for Better Health, San Antonio Regional Hospital, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, El Sol Educational Center and the Ontario-Montclair School District.

Another innovative effort is the newly formed Lewis-San Antonio Healthy Communities Institute, a partnership between San Antonio Regional Hospital and businessman Randall Lewis. The institute will serve as a vehicle to help create innovative solutions and support the efforts of local healthy cities by providing structure, programs and training.

Mr. Lewis’ generosity, leadership and commitment underscore the important role the business community can play in advancing healthy communities initiatives and improving the quality of life for our region.

The collective impact of these kinds of partnerships is undeniable, allowing communities to be physically — and economically — stronger than ever.

Evette DeLuca is executive director of Rancho Cucamonga-based Partners for Better Health, a partner in the Healthy Ontario Initiative.