Although Howard County is recognized as a state leader in health initiatives, there are some areas in the county that are lagging behind.

"Not everything is fine and dandy in this area," said Bibi Perotte-Fosten, a North Laurel resident and community advocate for southern Howard County.

Dr. Maura Rossman, the county's health officer, agrees, and cited county statistics that demonstrate the area has higher levels of chronic disease, such as diabetes, and stress than other portions of the county.

That's why the department, along with nonprofit Healthy Howard, partnered Saturday to launch a regional health initiative aimed at decreasing the availability of sugary drinks while increasing the affordability of fruits and vegetables, physical activity and access to affordable health care.

The initiative will create a Healthy Eating Active Living, or HEAL, Zone in the southern portion of the county, specifically North Laurel, Savage and Jessup. The HEAL Zone will be managed by Community Organizer Monica Lewis, who was hired using ounty council-approved funds. Rossman said approximately $100,000 was approved for the program.

"Healthy eating and active living is what the HEAL Zone stands for," said Lewis at a sparsely attended launch at the North Laurel Community Center. "It's an innovative effort to achieve a scientific and measurable impact on the health of a specific geographic area."

Lewis, who relocated from Wisconsin, where she employed a similar program, said her role is as an advocate working behind the scenes to affect habit changes in the region. Lewis' first project is to create a community garden in the area, a request of residents.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who was not in attendance Saturday, said in a statement that the initiative is the latest in his administration's efforts "to make Howard County a model public health community."

"This new HEAL Zone initiative is a great way to build on existing partnerships and target strategies where they will have the greatest impact," Ulman said. "We are going to flood the zone in North Laurel, Savage and Jessup with information and programs on food, physical activity and access to health care, and research has shown that this approach can make a big difference."

According to Rossman, the idea for a HEAL Zone originated in California and is akin to the state's Health Enterprise Zone, or HEZ, initiative, which was part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Health Disparities and Reduction Act of 2012.

According to the state's department of health website, a HEZ is "designed to reduce health disparities among Maryland's racial and ethnic groups and between geographic areas, improve health care access and health outcomes, and reduce health care costs by providing a variety of incentives to defined geographic areas with high rates of disparities."

Rossman said the region was selected for two reasons; need and community involvement.

"There were a few geographic areas that fit the criteria of need. ... And this specific area, the Laurel-Savage area, fit from having specific community-based support," Rossman said. "Collectively, we know it takes a community to make these changes."

District 3 county councilmember Jen Terrasa, who represents the region, praised the effort.

"I'm thrilled that Healthy Howard has chosen to bring more resources to North Laurel, Savage, and Jessup so that residents in these communities have healthier lifestyle options through the HEAL Zone initiative," Terrasa said in a statement.