Exercising and eating healthy food can be challenging for many people, especially when their surroundings make it easier for them to remain sedentary and chow down on convenient but unhealthy food.
A new statewide effort is aiming to make healthy choices the easiest ones for New Jerseyans to make, and it’s looking to do so in a new way.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded 10 community groups grants worth $200,000 each over four years in order to make their communities healthier.
Rather than simply funding the construction of walking paths or community gardens, the grants are meant to leave a lasting legacy — coalitions of community groups from different sectors that will work together to solve community-wide health problems.
The Plainsboro-based foundation — the largest healthcare-focused philanthropy in the country — has awarded New Jersey-specific grants through the New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) program since 1986. But NJHI Director Bob Atkins said that as part of the foundation’s 20-year commitment to build a “culture of health,” the new grants are meant to develop local answers that can be used as models for communities nationally.
“It’s one thing to tell people, ‘Eat well, get enough exercise, see your primary-care provider,’” Atkins said. “It’s another thing to talk about, how do we change the systems, policies, environments” that enable people to achieve healthy lives?
Atkins said the approach is new for the foundation’s work in the state. Rather than identifying issues and telling grant recipients to focus on them, NJHI officers are asking, “Who are you going to work with in your community? How are you going to work with them? How have you worked with them in the past?”
Then the groups arrive at what issues they will focus on by working together over time. “They’re going to figure out what their community needs to be healthier, what their community needs to create this equality of opportunity, to build a culture,” Atkins said. That work is going to require the consensus of “as many voices as we can fit into the conversation,” he said.
The 10 coalitions include healthcare and behavioral-health providers; community development officials; faith-based organizations; community residents; social service providers; businesses; colleges; municipal government; schools; and housing developers. Foundation representatives foresee the cross-pollination of the different ideas and experiences that the coalition members bring leading to innovative approaches.
“They’re going to be looking at what we’re doing here and I think several years from now, they’re going to look back at say, ‘You know, these were the early pioneers that engaged in this building a culture of health effort, and we learned so much from them,” Atkins said.
Dr. Robert Johnson, dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, serves on a board that advises NJHI. He said the new grants are based on a concept that’s been recognized for a long time: “Good health outcomes are the result of more than what doctors and hospitals can do. It’s the whole community that has to change. And if the community does change, then that will lead to improvements in the outcomes of health for everybody.”
For this to happen, more than one organization must be involved.
“By involving political entities, by involving businesses, by involving schools — all those types of groups can come together and work,” Johnson said. “And this is what we’re going to be doing in these 10 communities. We’ll be able to see how that can work in New Jersey.”
Each grant recipient has a single organization that has organized the local coalitions. They are AtlantiCare Foundation in Atlantic City; the Jersey City government; the North Jersey Health Collaborative in Morristown; Orange Public Schools; Rutgers University in Newark; the Irvington township government; United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey in Camden; United Way of Salem County in Salem; YMCA of Eastern Union County in Elizabeth; and YMCA of Trenton.
For example, Ronald C. Lee, superintendent of Orange Public Schools, noted that his organization would be working with a variety of different groups in a coalition focused on building healthy schools and connecting them with their communities. Coalition partners include Montclair State University; ValleyArts, a local arts group; University of Orange, which offers free classes; a local health clinic; and researchers based at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute.
Lee said the district has already made student safety a priority, with each school bringing in mentoring groups for male and female students. He also sees the educational and physical resources of the schools being useful to improving the health of the broader community.
Lee’s district hosted the announcement of the grant recipients on Tuesday. A group of summer campers gave a dance demonstration, to show the kind of activities that children be engaged in to be physically fit.
Foundation Senior Program Officer Marco Navarro said he’s proud of the work that members of the 10 coalitions are already doing in their communities, but he has “a great sense of promise” about what they will accomplish in the future.
He noted that the 10 groups represent the diversity of the state, which he said would be an asset in developing a variety of approaches in building healthier communities.
“Just like the produce that we harvest from our New Jersey farms to enjoy every year, building a culture of health is a homegrown product,” Navarro said.
Navarro pointed to evidence that the health of individuals is rooted in communitywide health, noting that there are significant differences in life expectancy between communities.
“That’s a function of where we live and work, and the strength of our communities,” he said.
Disclosure: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s health coverage.