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Sonoma County's Health Services Department has received a $3.5 million federal grant to support a wide range of health and wellness programs and initiatives, county officials announced Friday.

More than half of the money in the two-year grant will go to nonprofit organizations and other non-government entities that will carry out much of the work.

The initiatives are focused on youth suicide prevention, diabetes and high blood pressure detection, local food production, worksite wellness for farmworkers, safe routes to school and a media campaign combating tobacco use and consumption of sugary drinks.

The other portion of the grant will support new and expanded health, wellness and policy efforts run through the county health department.

County officials cheered the award, saying such broadly focused programs are critical to tackling chronic health issues that cannot be solved simply at the doctor's office.

"Establishing a healthy community is way beyond just the care of health providers," said Rita Scardaci, director of the county's Health Services Department. "It's about many factors: where you live, access to healthy foods, education, employment, income."

"This is excellent news for our community," said Mary Maddux Gonzalez, the county's former public health officer, now CEO of Redwood Community Health Coalition. The network of clinics is in line for about $180,000 from the grant to improve and expand patient education, screening and treatment for high blood pressure.

The grant money comes from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Centers for Disease Control as part of a program authorized by the federal health care overhaul, known as the Affordable Care Act.

About $70 million was awarded this week in the latest cycle. The 40 Community Transformation Grants went to local governments and other entities in communities under 500,000 people. A previous grant cycle focused on communities over 500,000 people. Sonoma County's population is about 490,000.

The award for Sonoma County was a win for a newly created policy and planning division of the health department. Amid some dispute over its cost, the 30-member team was created in October, in part to guide the county through changes resulting from health care reform.

"It's a validation for everything we want to do and the vision we have for the community," said Peter Rumble, who oversees the team as the county's director of health policy.

The planning group spent about a month putting together the 115-page grant proposal. The programs will employ an additional six staff members inside the roughly 500-employee Health Services Department, the county's third largest by personnel behind Human Services and the Sheriff's office. Health Services' annual budget is about $234 million, most of it federal and state funds.

When the grant expires in 2014 the department should have resources to maintain the additional staff and bolstered programs, Scardaci said.

Projects in the grant package follow the work of a five-year-old public-private health promotion effort known as Sonoma County Health Action. The venture's stated goal is to make the county the healthiest in California by 2020. Measures include educational attainment, literacy and obesity rates, levels of physical exercise, healthy eating habits, incidence of mental health and access to health coverage and primary care.

Years of work on those benchmarks gave the county a head start building support for preventative health care and likely gave it a leg up in the grant process, said Scardaci.

"These are already areas we're working on," she said. "This (grant) will allow us to work more aggressively and deeply in these areas."

The projects that will involve community groups or other outside contractors include:

; $20,000 to the Sonoma County Bike Coalition for expansion of the Safe Routes to Schools program.

; $200,000 to the YMCA for development of a countywide diabetes prevention program.

; $180,000 to the Community Alliance for Family Farmers and other partners for work geared toward incorporating more locally grown food into school meals.

; $150,000 to expand physical education training for elementary teachers and thereby combat high obesity rates among adolescents. Contractor will be selected in bid process.

; $75,000 to boost "Baby Friendly" training at the county's five delivery hospitals.

; $75,000 for expansion of St. Joseph Health System's worksite wellness program at vineyards and wineries.

; $160,000 to Sonoma State University to develop a course on urban planning and design promoting community health.

; $300,0000 for suicide prevention and early psychosis detection in adolescent and teenage youth, to be carried out in schools, sports leagues and clubs by UC San Francisco's medical school.

; $376,000 for a media campaign targeting tobacco use and consumption of sugary drinks.

The efforts to be carried out through county staff include:

; $80,000 to match food stamp purchases of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

; A study of prescription drug use patterns in the county that could detect signs of abuse or over-prescription.

; Work on changing nutrition guidelines for schools to allow more local food to be used in school meals.

; Work with the county Water Agency on improving access to drinking water at area schools.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

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