From Last Place, Bronx Communities Now Prize Culture of Health

Thursday, December 7th, 2017
This post was written by Patricia Donovan

Barely eight years ago, the Bronx landed at the very bottom of the first county health rankings issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) —the least healthy of 62 New York counties, to be exact.

It didn’t help that as a borough, the Bronx topped a few other lists compiled by New York officials, including the highest prevalence of obesity and diabetes and the top consumers of sugary drinks.

Rather than discourage this diverse borough, however, these rankings galvanized residents and a number of Bronx organizations, including the Bronx Institute of Health, to partner and examine facets of community life to see where health might be improved. Under the hash tag and rallying cry of #Not62, the coalition’s reach has extended into Bronx schools, housing and even local food stores known as bodegas as it attempts to reimagine and enhance community health.

During Innovative Community-Clinical Partnerships: Reducing Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities through Community Transformation, a November 2017 webcast now available for rebroadcast, Charmaine Ruddock, project director, Bronx Health REACH, charted the path to some of the innovative community health partnerships forged by her organization.

Formed in 1999 with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Bronx Health REACH (shorthand for “racial and ethnic approaches to community health”) is charged with eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes, particularly those related to diabetes and heart disease, in Bronx populations. Since its inception, Bronx Health REACH has grown from five to more than 70 community-based organizations, schools, healthcare providers, faith-based institutions, housing, social service agencies and others.

“Those founding partners were particularly concerned that Bronx Health REACH not be seen as a program per se, but as a catalyst for creating a movement around health and well-being in the community,” explained Ms. Ruddock.

From early focus groups, Bronx Health REACH determined that community members not only felt disrespected by the healthcare system, but also powerless to advocate on their own behalf for better services. Those findings helped to shape the Bronx Health REACH mission and subsequent efforts.

Outreach began at the organizational level, such as examining the way a local church provided meals at church events. The coalition brainstormed ways to prepare those meals in a healthier manner, supplementing the church’s work with nutrition training that quickly spread throughout the faith community. From there, the program applied that approach to the food offered during school meals and via vending machines, and eventually within the local food retail environment, which consists principally of bodegas.

Today, the scope of Bronx Health REACH is broad, encompassing street safety, physical activity and overall wellness, among other areas. Its early work with bodegas has grown from demonstrations and tastings of healthy foods to the formation of a Bronx bodega work group and a new Healthy Bodegas marketing initiative. It has engaged farmers’ markets in its objective of increasing healthier food options. To that end, healthcare providers now issue “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables that are accompanied by ten-dollar coupons.

The transformation is visible in the community, Ms. Ruddock notes. Today, some previously padlocked playgrounds are open; murals by visiting artists that adorn the walls of local housing are left alone for all to enjoy.

However, a great deal of work remains. “We have given ourselves as a goal that by 2020, we will establish a multi-sector infrastructure working with housing groups, economic development groups, and others as the first step in addressing many of the health-related factors and issues,” explained Ms. Ruddock.

But for now, the enthusiasm and contributions of Bronx residents have not gone unrewarded. In 2015, just five years after receiving its disappointing health ranking, the Bronx was one of eight recipients of the RWJF’s Culture of Health prize. The prize is awarded to communities that work to ensure residents have the opportunity to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

Listen to Charmaine Ruddock explain how early findings from focus groups helped to shape Bronx Health REACH initiatives.

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