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Communities around Wisconsin can apply next month for a share of a $23.5 million federal grant that state officials initially opposed but that was eventually awarded to UW-Madison to prevent chronic diseases.

The five-year grant, awarded in September, targets three efforts: smoke-free apartment complexes, access to exercise and fresh foods, and heart disease screening in underserved areas.

State Department of Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith initially criticized UW-Madison's bid for the grant, saying the money would duplicate state efforts. But Smith changed his mind in July and wrote a letter of support required to get the money.

Smith and Gov. Scott Walker oppose the new federal health care law, and Wisconsin is among the states challenging it in court.

The grant will boost disease prevention programs around the state, said Tom Sieger, prevention coordinator for UW-Madison's University Health Services. 

"We want to promote environments that help make the healthy choice the easy choice," Sieger said.

Wisconsin ranked last among states in public health funding in a study this month by United Health Foundation.

The Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Prevention Resources, a unit of University Health Services, received the grant. The clearinghouse will send much of the money to local health departments and community groups, said Carrie Sullivan, co-director of the clearinghouse.

Requests for applications will go out next month, and by March about 10 communities will be chosen to work on the target areas, Sullivan said.

One area — making apartments and other multi-unit housing complexes smoke-free — comes a year and a half after Wisconsin adopted a smoking ban for indoor workplaces. Some public housing authorities around the country have banned smoking indoors.

Also, communities can become more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians through Complete Streets programs, such as one started last year in La Crosse County. Farm to School programs will be expanded to bring more fresh foods to students, Sullivan said.

In the third area, screening for high cholesterol and high blood pressure will be enhanced in ZIP codes with low screening rates or health disparities, she said.

Many organizations are partnering with the clearinghouse on the grant, including the YMCA, Health First Wisconsin and Wisconsin Cancer Council.

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