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What is Thriving Communities?

Thriving Communities is a program focused on making healthy eating and active living more accessible and affordable in Alabama counties. The health and wellbeing of a community and its residents are dependent upon access to nutritious, affordable food, quality early childhood programs, and reliable ways to move between home, work, school, and other community destinations. By engaging with community partners committed to improving these areas, Thriving Communities aims to create collaborative change through cross-sector partnerships between Alabama Extension and communities around the state.

The program is implemented through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University in 12 Alabama counties that have a high adult obesity prevalence. Counties that are currently funded include Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Escambia, Etowah, Greene, Hale, Marengo, Perry, Russell, Sumter, and Wilcox counties.

Community-Driven Change

To achieve program goals, the Thriving Communities team works with county Extension offices to identify organizations and individuals passionate about three overarching strategies: (1) improving access to healthy foods, (2) connecting residents through better walking and biking networks, and (3) improving the quality of early care and education programs. Key stakeholders, specifically the community members interested in and affected by changes, lead the process of identifying opportunities for improvement and determining the activities or projects that will be implemented.

Ultimately, the success of projects is heavily dependent upon local knowledge imparted by community members. Thriving Communities works with organizations and individuals with similar priorities to implement activities that lead toward mutually beneficial goals. Projects typically focus on policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) changes to support healthy behaviors that can reach a larger portion of residents as opposed to education alone. PSE changes help reduce health disparities by making healthy choices available and accessible to the entire community.

Program Strategies

Thriving Communities focuses on three strategic approaches to creating healthier and thriving communities:

  1. Improving access to healthy foods through food service and nutrition guidelines, fruit and vegetable voucher programs, and produce prescription programs.
  2. Increasing physical activity through community design that connects everyday destinations with safe and accessible routes.
  3. Improving early care and education programs through policies that affect nutrition, physical activity, and breastfeeding.

Healthy Food Access

Good nutrition and the ability to afford nutritious food are foundations for staying healthy, but only 1 in 10 US adults eats enough fruits and vegetables every day. Thriving Communities aims to improve or expand voucher programs that reduce possible financial barriers that prevent people from purchasing fruits and vegetables. Examples include increasing the ability to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits at more farmers markets, farm stands, and retail stores or expanding Double Up Food Bucks programs. Connecting local farmers and food retail stores to these programs is equally important to increase local market demand and sales. Additionally, nutrition education and cooking demonstrations improve these programs by teaching skills to customers and improving their knowledge related to healthy eating.

Another emerging way to improve access to nutritious foods for those that need it is through produce prescriptions programs. These programs allow healthcare providers to prescribe fruits and vegetables for patients with chronic diseases and low access to nutritious foods, typically by providing free fruits and vegetables on site or through a voucher that can be redeemed at participating food pantries, farmers markets, or retail grocery stores.

Food service and nutrition guidelines can help to make healthy food and beverages readily available in places where food is served, sold, or distributed, like food pantries, municipal buildings, parks and recreation facilities, faith-based organizations, senior centers, and hospitals. These guidelines give organizations a path to follow toward increasing access to healthier choices in their facilities.

Physical Activity

Physical activity is essential to maintaining health, and access to safe places to play and walk is important for physical activity. Thriving Communities works to increase physical activity by focusing on community designs that improve the safety and appeal of walking or biking between important community destinations. This includes improving pedestrian infrastructure (sidewalks, trails, intersection safety, crosswalks, benches, street lighting), bicycle infrastructure (protected bike lanes, slower community streets, intersection safety, bicycle racks at important destinations), and connectivity between everyday destinations, like homes, worksites, schools, parks, grocery stores, pharmacies, and health care facilities.

Thriving Communities works with community stakeholders to develop active transportation action plans that identify short-, medium-, and long-term projects that can improve connectivity between important destinations.

Early Care and Education

Approximate three in five US children under the age of 5 are enrolled in an early care and education program. Access to high-quality programs can improve health outcomes for all children later in life. Thriving Communities aims to improve early care and education programs by focusing on improvements to policies and practices that affect nutrition, physical activity, and breastfeeding.

Alabama Extension’s Breastfeeding Friendly Child Care Certification has been successful in working with childcare providers around the state to improve breastfeeding practices, which provide benefits to infants, mothers, and the marketability of the child care program.

Contributions to Community Economic Development

While the projects through Thriving Communities focus on improving public health, the activities also contribute to the social cohesion and economic development of communities by creating vibrant places and spaces where people want to stop and spend time. Some of the most vocal and passionate collaborators in communities have been Chambers of Commerce and Main Street organizations, as their mission and goals dovetail with the overarching goals of Thriving Communities.

Examples of this work can be seen across the state.  Monroe County residents have crafted the smART Moves Mural Trail—a series of eye-catching murals designed to attract tourists county-wide. In Barbour County, community members are revitalizing a public area near the Chamber of Commerce, aiming to link residents to downtown and the Yoholo Micco Rail Trail through improved walking and biking paths. Schools are also stepping up: in Greene County, collaboration with Eutaw Primary School has led to the installation of new, highly visible crosswalks near the school entrance, encouraging more students to walk or bike to class.


Thriving Communities is funded by the High Obesity Program (HOP) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (CDC DNPAO). Funding for this program began in October 2023 and is currently projected to continue through September 2028.