Cumberland County Battles Against ‘Unhealthiest County’ Distinction

NJ Spotlight News | April 12, 2017 | Health Care
The Cumberland/Salem/ Gloucester Health and Wellness Alliance was formed to address issues of poor health.

By David Cruz

Unless you have a car, getting around Cumberland County is pretty tough. Just ask anyone who’s had to wait for a bus. Cumberland County is also the state’s poorest county. Just ask anyone who’s looking for work. A walk-to grocery store? Good luck. You’re as likely to find a McDonald’s as an Aldi grocery store. The next nearest Aldi is 40 minutes away. So would it surprise you that at the bottom of the county health rankings is Cumberland County? It’s 21st out of 21 counties.

“We said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do this better. We just can’t be satisfied with being at the bottom.’ So we brought a collection of people together and started talking and discovered that we had never talked before,” said Inspira Health Network Foundation Vice President of Community Relations Carolyn Heckman. “Prior to 2010, most of the social service agencies in Cumberland County worked in silos. We were worried about our own particular missions, what we did for Inspira, what Inspira does. The Health Department worried about the things that they were doing. The various municipal agencies worried about what they did.”

Heckman is one of the members of the Cumberland/Salem/Gloucester Health and Wellness Alliance, which was formed in direct response to the counties’ poor health rankings. The alliance is made up of health care providers like Inspira and a collection of government and nonprofit service providers. Today, they were taking stock of where they are and seeing what challenges they still face.

“We found chronic disease is an issue. Obesity, people want assistance with that. Access to health care and really, the social determinants of health was a huge portion. So it’s really hard when you can’t put food on the table or you can’t afford to pay your rent, you’re not worried about being healthier. You know, these people can’t afford their food or they don’t have access to it, so what do we need to do to improve their situations?” said Cumberland County Health Officer Megan Sheppard.

“We have many disparities across the state, but the ones that affect Cumberland are really those that have to do with mental health. There’s some substance abuse issues that are also going on. Teen pregnancy is a big one also in Cumberland. And you also have issues of other chronic illnesses like diabetes and obesity,” said Office of Minority and Multicultural Health Executive Director Carolyn Daniels.

Employing the “it takes a village” approach, the county has increased transportation services, Inspira has built a new urgent care center and the alliance has created a social services search engine that connects clients with agencies that help with everything from housing to health care. And when direct action is needed, the alliance brings members together to literally feed the hungry.

“We’ve created a program where we can get fresh produce from our local farmers who are willing to donate; we’re working with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey to also give any produce that they have available to them and then we work with our food pantries to get that food to the pantry just in time for their pantries,” said Emma Lopez, co-chair of Live Healthy Vineland.

It all sounds like a plan. An alliance of the invested, helping those most affected by poverty and other issues. So how’s it been going?

“We’re still at 21,” Heckman said.

Which goes to show you that there are no easy fixes. Still, say the organizers of today’s event, the fact that everyone is now in the same room, pulling in the same direction, is a significant victory in itself.