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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Empire Health Foundation will distribute funds to combat obesity

The region’s largest charitable foundation plans to spend $800,000 this year fighting obesity and addressing how Eastern Washington can best care for the mentally ill.

In addition, the Empire Health Foundation will devote another $800,000 to small grants designed to help nonprofit groups weather the economic downturn.

The foundation’s long-range initiatives are broad-based and still developing, said Antony Chiang, executive director of Empire Health Foundation. But the nonprofit’s board has decided those two problems are worth tackling.

Until now the foundation had focused on developing administrative policies and making small grants totaling about $1 million, none of which has exceeded $25,000. Such grants are designed to help the many nonprofits that are struggling to solicit adequate private donations or secure government funds, resulting in scaled-back services.

“This is in recognition of the lingering recession and the widespread health benefit cuts,” Chiang said.

The foundation announced its obesity prevention/healthy lifestyles initiative earlier this month to coincide with the city of Spokane’s proclamation to join the “Let’s Move” campaign, an effort launched by first lady Michelle Obama to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.

It hasn’t announced where it will begin investing the money. One possibility might be small-scale pilot projects in either Spokane neighborhoods or small towns. Chiang said the goal is to make targeted, large grants to effect long-range changes. The foundation hopes to leverage its donations with money from other sources, such as matching government grants or other charitable grants and services.

The obesity prevention and mental illness directives are envisioned as long-term investments – each potentially drawing millions from the foundation over four to seven years.

Several other larger, or strategic, grants will be announced in coming years as needs and ideas jell.

The foundation has hired a professional staff of eight people, including an attorney, program managers and a business analyst. Chiang determined the foundation could hire its own staff for the amount of money it was spending for outside expertise and services.

The foundation has about $50 million. It was formed 2  1/2 years ago to capture proceeds from the sale of nonprofit Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center to national for-profit hospital company Community Health Systems Inc.

The initial sum received by the foundation was about $79 million. But along with the money, the foundation inherited a pension plan set up for retired employees of the two hospitals, along with other liabilities such as ongoing medical malpractice lawsuits and issues.

Community Health wanted no part of the pension plan and it insisted that its takeover of Deaconess and Valley start fresh without lingering legal issues.

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