Health philanthropies are about more than making grants. The Robert Wood Johnson Association, among the largest health philanthropic organizations in the world, is partnering with the Federal Reserve Bank (the Fed) on how community development impacts health — and vice versa.

You cannot have a healthy community without focusing on housing, schools, and other neighborhood stakeholders, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey told the conference on Healthy Communities: Building Systems to Integrate Community Development and Health.

In this context, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey quoted Robert Kennedy who said, “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

RWJF, the Fed and community development organizations are interested in the convergence between health and communities – which are inextricably linked and reinforcing. The three groups are already working in same communities working on the same difficult long-term problems that are plaguing the United States, so it makes sense for them to coordinate efforts toward improving health in these communities.

“How can Americans’ achieve long, healthy, productive lives?” Lavizzo-Mourey asked. RWJF’s research has found that found that college graduates are more likely to live 5-8 years longer than people with less than a high school education; poor Americans are three times more likely to suffer chronic illnesses and disabilities than more affluent people; and, upper income Americans expect to have significantly more access to health than those in poor neighborhoods.

The New England Journal of Medicine published an article on October 20, 2011, Neighborhoods, Obesity and Diabetes – A Randomized Social Experiment, describing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program (MTO) which began in 1994 to understand the impact of neighborhoods on low-income families with children. HUD found that moving low income women with kids to lower poverty neighborhoods led to lower levels of obesity and diabetes in their families. HUD looked at 4,500 very low income families’ data in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, LA and New York.

The lead author of the paper, Jens Ludwig of University of Chicago, told USA Today, “This research shows how important the environment can be for people’s health.” The researchers didn’t think that neighborhoods would be as important a factor in a medical issue like diabetes as much as medical interventions would.

RWJF has been working with communities focused on children’s health as part of their larger portfolio and mission. RWJF trustees as part of the Foundation’s Food Trust program recently visited a supermarket, the Fresh Grocer in North Philadelphia. There, children in 5th and 6th grade participated in a program called Smart Snacks, learning to connect the physical plant of a full service grocer to what was going on in their schools; students brought new knowledge and energy home to parents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Lavizzo-Mourey pointed out that RWJF is working beyond its traditional “comfort zone,” beyond medical interventions and health “care,” in its initiatives with the Fed and community development organizations. That’s because all the parties recognize, as do the researchers published in NEJM on obesity and diabetes, that health isn’t the sole purview of the doctor and the hospital. Health is bolstered — or hampered — by peoples’ environments, daily choices, public policy and, yes, health care resources.

Economic development directly influences public health, and people’s individual health outcomes and opportunities. The RWJF-Fed-community development connection is an example of how stakeholders in the larger community, beyond health “care,” must come together to address the difficult and protracted challenges in improving health and health disparities in the U.S.

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