In 2011, the College of Public Health's Business Leadership Network (BLN) launched a new program to connect with small- to mid-sized Iowa communities to discuss local public health needs. Business, industry, community, education, and healthcare leaders in partner communities helped identify those needs, and the network worked to utilize the expertise and resources of the university to help meet them.
Over the past decade, BLN has expanded to hold community forums in counties across Iowa and provide community grants to fund local public health initiatives.
Each semester, BLN holds a community forum based on public health priorities identified by the community. Faculty, students, business leaders, economic development professionals, public health officials, health care providers, local elected officials, and the general public connect to share information, exchange ideas, and explore opportunities for further collaboration.
Tara McKee, coordinator for the Business Leadership Network, plans the community forums in cooperation with local partners. In the fall of 2019, McKee joined with the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine, Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Muscatine Center for Social Action, Trinity Muscatine Public Health, and UnityPoint Health – Trinity Muscatine to organize a forum on substance use and mental health impact on youth and the workplace in Muscatine, Iowa.
The forum began with a panel on substance use and mental health. Then, small groups discussed how to make progress on the topics locally. Community leaders discussed the current state of support for the issue in Muscatine, and university faculty gave insight into the problems on a broader scale.
A full report on the forum can be found here.
After the forum, the Community Foundation of Muscatine applied for and received a BLN Community Grant to support their Fueling the Future program. The program supports low-income families of elementary school children receiving weekend "backpack" food subsidies in Muscatine County. Fueling the Future engages those families in a six-week intensive "earn while you learn" upskill training to give them the credentials to work high-demand jobs.
UI College of Public Health received the Iowa Farm Bureau funding to support the BLN community grant program. The program aims to create stability in low-income families and address the root causes of issues like childhood hunger rather than just creating short-term solutions. The college's students, faculty, and staff collaborate with Muscatine partners to conduct evidence-based research and provide an evaluation to inform the program moving forward.
As of January 2021, Fueling the Future had 11 families enrolled in the program and five families with a parent who gained a high-demand field certificate. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, during a January 2020 visit to Muscatine Community College - to learn about Fueling the Future - said the program's holistic approach is "incredible" and "something [she] can take to all schools."
“It's an innovative program that can provide a template for other organizations,” Reynolds said.
The Business Leadership Network helps communities address unique local public health needs using the power of the University of Iowa. Don Woodruff, President of Woodruff Construction in Fort Dodge and a BLN steering committee member, said the BLN helps to fill the gap between what is known and what is practiced in public health by "serving as a conduit of information and resources between the College of Public Health and Iowa businesses and communities."
More information on the College of Public Health's Business Leadership Network can be found at public-health.uiowa.edu/bln.