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Jersey City Mayor Wants to Put Municipality Ahead of the Health Curve

Fulop aims to change city role to being proactive instead of reactive

Fulop-Davis-Caulfield
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (left), Barnabas Health executive vice president Michellene Davis, Field Development Group owner Robert Caulfield.

A livable city doesn’t just mean walkability, economic development, and access to entertainment. It also means a healthy city.

In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop’s administration is using several methods to make the city an example for the entire state of how to prioritize the health of its residents, ranging from increased access to healthcare to making it easier for residents to shop for nutritious food.

The city’s efforts are being supported by hospitals and nonprofits -- an emphasis on health has even seeped into the design of new residential developments.

“What we’ve tried to do is to change the culture to be more proactive legislatively, more proactive from a policy standpoint,” seeking to involve residents, Fulop said yesterday at a forum hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The foundation is seeking to build what it calls a “culture of health” across the country and gathered Jersey City leaders yesterday to discuss the potential for the city and other municipalities to create this culture.

Fulop said that city government traditionally treated economic development as a primary responsibility, while the city Department of Health and Human Services was a second- or third-tier priority, focused on things like monitoring for lead in homes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and animal control.

Foremost among Fulop’s changes has been the city’s effort to enroll as many residents as possible in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. It also is the first municipality in New Jersey to require employers to provide paid sick days.

But the transformation of Jersey City also involved smaller programs, including one that provided 2,000 residents with tours of supermarkets to teach them how to find and cook healthy foods.

“It’s really great that our health department and our employees are kind of changing the culture,” said Fulop, who noted that there’s been a 180-degree turn in the agency’s approach.

“I think that healthy living is as crucial to city living as economic development or any other component,” Fulop said.

Jersey City Medical Center and its new parent Barnabas Health have been working with the city on health initiatives outside the hospital proper.

Barnabas executive vice president Michellene Davis said it’s no longer enough to just provide hospital services. Barnabas is aiming to contribute to community health. This includes support for an urban farm, and -- soon -- a hospital-supported greenhouse open to people who live in the city.

Jersey City’s ACA enrollment effort has drawn praise from President Barack Obama. Fulop said the city used grants to hire workers who could speak a total of 10 languages, critical to enrollment efforts in a city where 38.6 percent of residents were born in other countries.

Robert Caulfield, owner of Field Development Group, is making health part of the housing his company builds, not only by including access to fitness facilities, but also by designing common spaces that to foster communal bonds.

“We think that goes hand in hand” with Fulop’s approach, Caulfield said.

Longtime social-service providers also are looking for ways to connect residents with programs intended to improve their health. Jim L. Nelson, executive director of local food pantry The Sharing Place at St. Paul Lutheran Church, wants to change the way the pantry provides food to needy residents to make it easier for them to also learn about nutrition and healthcare. The facility hosts weekly health screenings with CarePoint Health, owner of Christ Hospital.

Nelson described The Sharing Place as “a bridge and connector to sustain a culture of health.”

Taking the supermarket tour changed the way residents budget for food, It also furnished valuable information about how to read food-package labels, and to actively consider healthier choices. Each tour participant received a $10 store voucher.

Schools have also been involved in the citywide health effort. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit focused on reducing childhood obesity, oversees a program in city schools to encourage physical activity and healthy eating. Program manager Jessica Schaeffer said this could be as simple as having a schoolwide minute-long break to get up and move.

“The idea is not that health is something extra,” Schaeffer said, but of incorporating it into activities that children already are doing, so that “it’s ingrained into the culture of the place.”

While Fulop highlighted the progress that’s occurred during the first 16 months of his administration, he acknowledged, “it’s taken decades to get into this situation, it’s not going to be solved in a year, but we’re actively working on it.”

He said that an affordable housing plan he will announce next month -- Jersey City’s first in decades -- could help.

Fulop added that it would take time to know whether the current efforts have been successful. He said his benchmark would be whether the average life expectancy in the city has increased in a decade.

Davis said Barnabas aims to contribute to community development by sponsoring the Health Sciences Charter School, a high school that seeks to prepare students for careers in health.

Jersey City Medical Center President and CEO Joseph F. Scott said the hospital is using community feedback to shape its services. After an assessment of the city’s health needs uncovered a lack of cervical-cancer screenings, the medical center decided to open a women’s health center at the Grove Street PATH train station.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation senior vice president James Marks said a “broader view of health as more than an absence of illness or injury, but as a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing” will make Jersey City and other New Jersey municipalities more attractive to raise and family and locate businesses. The foundation will fund coalitions in 10 New Jersey municipalities aimed at building healthy communities.

Disclosure: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s health coverage.

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