Grandma lived in Pasadena until she was 102, and you’re hoping that you’ve inherited those good genes. But, according to the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, community engagement initiative which celebrated its “halftime” on April 16, when it comes to health, your zip code matters much more than your genetic code.

“Your health doesn’t just depend on if a community is rich or poor, but on the opportunities available in that community and the structures that support those opportunities,” explained Dr. Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment.

“Do community members have access to healthy food?” he asked. “Are children criminalized early in a school to prison superhighway?”

It may come as no surprise that where there is inequality, there are lower life expectancies. The Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Initiative is trying to change that. Fourteen communities throughout California-from Del Norte, near the Oregon border to the City Heights community in San Diego—are becoming engaged in solving the problems around them—from criminal justice reform, healthier land use, gentrification and access to better care.

The Endowment believes that directly engaging residents in building their own voices and power would ultimately make the difference. Through local organizing, robust participation and advocacy work, communities are identifying priorities and testing new ideas to improve their life expectancy.

BHC South Los Angeles is committed to increasing enrollment in the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges and Medi-Cal and expanding school-based wellness centers. The collaborative also advocates for quality and affordable housing, parks and green space, access to healthy foods and equitable transit-oriented development.

Successes in South L.A. include securing more than $30 million for affordable housing and local hiring requirements as part of USC’s community benefit agreement.

Regarding the emotional development of youth in South L.A., the collaborative has successfully amended the Daytime Curfew Ordinance, passing a School Climate Bill of Rights and the Equity is Justice Resolution.

The 13 other California communities in the BHC initiative include Boyle Heights, Central Santa Ana, Central/Southeast/Southwest Fresno, City Heights, Del Norte County Adjacent Tribal Land, Eastern Coachella Valley, East Oakland, East Salinas, Long Beach, Richmond, Sacramento, South Kern and Southwest Merced/East Merced County.

“There are 600 grantees, representing more than 50,000 involved Californians,” Ross said. “It’s about the power of engagement.”

A colorful video, “Tale of Two Zip Codes,” featured online at, illustrates how the health status of a population is adversely affected by socio-economic factors related to where they live, work, worship and play.

In “A-town,” where grocery stores with fresh produce are within walking distance, along with parks and businesses, the average lifespan is 88 years. While in “B-ville,” a community near busy freeways, with streets of boarded-up businesses, high unemployment, fast food on every corner, but few grocery stores and fewer parks for recreation, the average lifespan is 72 years.

People in “B-Ville” are trying to raise their children in the midst of those communities and can find life stressful.

“Chronic stress is a serious health risk factor, contributing to diabetes and heart disease,” Dr. Ross said. “If you have less options in front of you, you’re going to make lousy choices.”

“This is not a call for more taxes,” he added, pointing out that the U.S. already spends $3 trillion on healthcare and $65,000 per inmate on sustaining prison populations—but invests only three cents per person on prevention.

“There has to be a change in the investment strategies in this nation,” Ross said. “California has built 22 prisons and only one U.C. campus in the last 20 years.”

Two members of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) were among the elected officials present at Saturday’s event, because education plays a major factor at the K through 12 level and beyond.

“Lowering college debt is one of President (Barack) Obama’s goals,” LACCD Trustee Michael Eng said. “That is the number one factor in determining success after college.”

“Although more than 40 percent of our college students don’t pay tuition at all, many of them don’t have cars and take up to six busses per day to get to campus,” Eng added. “That eats up a good amount of the income they may have, and they still need to buy books.”

Sydney Kamlager is the newest member of the LACCD Board of Trustees, and the only African American there.

“Over half of our students live below the poverty line,” Kamlager said, noting that an associate of arts degree may take some part-time students five years to complete. “Most of our students are focusing on keeping their jobs.”

All in all, the California Endowment is pleased with the progress of the past five years and looks forward to more state residents getting involved in the initiative.

“I am so optimistic that California can show this nation the way,” Ross said.