Growing Faith-Based Healthcare Program Shows Results in New Jersey Cities

Churches, temples, and mosques are at the heart of a state-supported program to help religious groups promote healthy eating and exercise

A youth participant from Hosanna African Methodist Episcopal Church tends to the church's community garden.
As policy experts continue to sharpen their focus on the importance of fostering healthy communities to keep people well, New Jersey has witnessed a growing interest in – and new funding for – faith-based healthcare programs.

State officials have built partnerships with dozens of religious organizations in Camden, Trenton, and Newark in an effort to reduce obesity and the chronic diseases it contributes to, including diabetes and heart disease.

Using a block grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health will invest $3 million over three years in the Faith in Prevention program, which stems from an evidence-based curriculum developed by religious groups in conjunction with North Carolina State University.

Early reports suggest the effort, which kicks off its third year in October, has been successful in helping those involved eat healthier foods and get more exercise. More than 300 people were involved the first year and participation may well have since doubled. Organizers said enthusiasm for the program is infectious in some communities.

A participant from the Masjidun-Nur Islamic community learns healthy recipes from the Food Bank of South Jersey.
“It’s really exciting. There’s endless potential here,” said Summer Tatum, a program manager with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, which coordinates the work in that city. (The Trenton Health Team runs the program in the capital city and the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition handles the state’s largest urban area.) “There’s tons of state’s that don’t get the kind of support we do here in New Jersey,” Tatum said.

Tatum is organizing an event Friday at the Rutgers-Camden student center to mark the end of the program’s second year; the agenda includes Mayor Dana Redd, the Rutgers-Camden chancellor Phoebe Haddon and several DOH officials. Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett is also planning to attend.

“We’ve found there are so many residents suffering from hypertension, or are pre-diabetic, and they are learning about (their disease) through this program,” Tatum said. “And the faith-based community is really being lifted up as leaders in terms of healthcare.”

The program is part of a growing interest in how religious organizations can help connect individuals with healthcare. The importance of working with churches, temples, mosques, and other groups was a recurring theme at a conference last week on the need to expand health insurance and access to care, hosted by NJ Citizen Action. Philanthropic groups, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have also funded healthcare efforts tied to faith-based groups in recent years.

For Faith in Prevention, the state provides $300,000 to each organizing coalition each year. Tatum said these groups then make small grants to participating religious organizations to help them get members involved. Funding has been used in Camden to renovate basketball courts, create church-based fitness rooms, and organize exercise or healthy cooking classes, for example.

Martha Hernandez, lay leader from Iglesia Cristiana Getsemani, demonstrates how to prepare a healthy stir fry.
All faiths are welcomed, Tatum stressed. Camden’s program has involved people from diverse faiths, including Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, and Messianic Jews, among many others, she said. “It’s easy because the baseline is health and every (faith) wants their people to be healthy,” she said.

The state also hired the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy to analyze the program. A report on the first year’s progress, published in February, found it had already made a positive impact on these urban communities, where residents often have limited access to healthy foods or safe spaces to exercise. Two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight and one-third is chronically obese, research has found.

While before and after data for the first year was not available for all three locations, Rutgers researchers found the focus on prevention had a positive impact on many participants. In general, people who went through the program said they were more likely to plan their meals in advance, eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods, consume smaller portions, and spend more time physically active. The report said religious organizations themselves benefitted from having members who were more engaged and through their interaction with other groups.

“Participating faith-based organizations also implemented policy, environmental and systems changes that continue to benefit congregants, well beyond the six-week curriculum roll out,” added Donna Leusner, communications director for DOH.

Program participants from Ferry Avenue United Methodist Church work on Chi Gong techniques.
The program works well, Tatum said, because it helps connect people who are at home in a church community – but might not be comfortable in a medical clinic – with important information about their health. Religious leaders also commit to the curriculum and act as coaches and cheerleaders for their members, she said.

“You have a community that is saying ‘faith is important to us.’ I say it’s pretty genius to tap into what people value so much,” Tatum said. “After all, I might see my pastor three times a week, but I might see my doctor just once a year.”

The program is based on a national model, Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More, created in North Carolina and adopted in a number of states. The curriculum is designed to help communities make healthy decisions about food, exercise and lifestyle choices, but Tatum said it also seeks to go much deeper.

“They look at key scriptures, at key elements of sacred texts” for examples that encourage healthy living, Tatum explained. “In the Bible, it talks about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit,” she said, “And if my body belongs to God, then I want to be the best steward possible, and I probably shouldn’t be stuffing it full of fast foods and not staying fit.”