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Op-Ed: Making NJ Truly Healthy Means Giving Everyone Same Opportunities

Healthy living is hard to achieve for many New Jerseyans, who face significant economic and social obstacles. We need to build a ‘culture of health’ for all our residents

Diane Hagerman
Diane Hagerman

Being healthy is more than getting a yearly flu shot or making time to get 30 minutes of exercise each day. As important as taking control of one’s lifestyle is, for too many people obstacles to good health come from things far beyond their control.

It is challenging for children to get their daily exercise if their neighborhoods are too dangerous for them to play outside. Parents can’t buy fruits and vegetables if there are no fresh markets in their area. Who among us would choose seeing a doctor if the co-pay meant we couldn’t afford to feed our family? Only when people can obtain appropriate care and have the means to make healthy choices — regardless of their income, education, ethnicity, or where they live — can New Jersey be a truly healthy state.

These social conditions shouldn’t determine how long, or how well, we live. Too many people start behind and stay behind for lack of a decent job, safe living environment, or the opportunity for a good education.

At New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we work with communities across the Garden State to build a culture of health, where everyone can live a healthier life. This requires removing economic and social obstacles to advance health equity. In Atlantic City, our Care AC coalition has been strengthening partnerships in the city and expanding its focus from issues like nutrition and physical activity, to public safety, substance abuse, and homelessness. The Atlantic City terminal hosts a “social services mall” every month, bringing together an array of social service agencies so people can visit them in one stop. The project bridges the gap between law enforcement and social services to improve the health and well-being of Atlantic City’s homeless and at-risk residents. By engaging partners from law enforcement, tourism, transit, and health and social services, they tackle deeply rooted challenges effectively.

Childhood traumas

In Cape May County, the Cape Regional Wellness Alliance breaks down silos among the social service, education, healthcare, public service, and business sectors. The alliance addresses the county’s high rate of adverse childhood experiences, which include all types of abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences — such as witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, divorce, or an incarcerated parent. Through innovative tools such as an in-school Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and multi-municipality summer youth camps delivered by local police departments, the entire community is more aware of childhood trauma — which means more kids have the chance to go on to healthy lives.

The Toms River Family Health & Support coalition is another strong example of building a culture of health at the community level. It represents more than 50 organizations, and through engaging community conversations has identified nutritious food connections, senior isolation, substance abuse, and youth emotional wellness as priority health concerns. With nearly 28 percent of the population over age 60, senior residents are often overlooked and isolated from needed services and social opportunities. To combat this, senior ambassadors are trained to first work within their own adult communities to address and reduce isolation and loneliness, then build networks outside their communities to develop a broad system to not only address senior isolation but also raise the visibility and voice of seniors as community assets and influencers.

Health gap persists — and grows

Across the nation, gaps in health are large, persistent, and increasing. Those gaps need to be closed, and community involvement is an important tool for doing that. Meeting with residents, local business owners, educators, youth, cultural institutions, and elected officials fosters cross-sector dialogue that inspires meaningful action. We can commit to incorporate health into decisions about everything from housing, to transportation, to local planning. Ultimately, we must resolve to do whatever it takes so that all community members can get the resources they need to live the healthiest lives possible.

Developing a shared vision and sharing data and other resources can lead to more opportunities for all New Jerseyans. As a result of information shared at community meetings, for example, we’ve seen school nurses partner with food banks and pantries to provide weekend backpacks to students whose families don't have enough to eat. Young adult leaders are making their voices heard by advocating for safer spaces and reduced violence with concepts like crime prevention through environmental design, and librarians are being trained as health information specialists to empower residents with the knowledge they need to be effective advocates for their own care.

Our goal is to engage new and traditionally underrepresented voices in meaningful, broad conversations that result in action.

It’s time to come together, to align resources, encourage dialogue, and inspire action to build a healthier New Jersey for all our residents.

Diane Hagerman is deputy director of programs for New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. NJHI supports innovations and drives conversations to build healthier communities across New Jersey.

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