How Do We Empower Communities to Get Healthy?

Jul 6, 2014, 9:03 PM, Posted by Martin Scaglione

Shoppers at an outside food market in Philadelphia

I’ve been privileged to live in many communities across the nation—16, to be exact. My wife Lisa and I recently moved from Iowa City, a "college town" of 80,000 people, to New York City, a bustling urban region of 23 million. Life from city to city and region to region is different in some ways, yet concerns related to community wellness remain the same.

On any given Saturday throughout the year, one can find dozens of farmers markets in New York City with fresh local produce and other offerings that encourage healthful choices. This is something we expected while living in Iowa, but were pleased to also find in the city. However, despite the fact that both communities benefit from farmers markets, health awareness campaigns and arguably the finest health care providers, both also struggle with obesity and chronic illness. Even within cities well equipped to promote health and provide care, certain individuals and neighborhoods thrive, while others struggle; is this merely a reflection of wealth disparity, or could it have to do with something more?

When health outcomes are related more to one’s ZIP code than genetic code, as James S. Marks, MD, MPH, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, stated, it is clear that we need to look beyond basic ideas about health being a personal responsibility. We need to identify best practices within communities that empower their residents to pursue healthy lifestyles.

What factors lead to a successful Culture of Health in certain communities? What barriers do we need to remove to encourage even greater adoption of healthful living in others? How can we as a country understand that the context of health is an all-encompassing one that should inform every aspect of our lives? And with this, what stakeholders are willing to commit to making this "Culture of Health" a reality for all Americans?

To answer this question, Hope Street Group convened more 55 stakeholders, ranging from employers, government and faith institutions to hospitals, universities, nonprofits and the media, to determine how best to encourage collaboration among them. We sought to define the roles each of these stakeholders could play in building a Culture of Health, as well as motivations and limitations to participation. This has culminated with the publication of Tipping the Scales: Engaging Community Stakeholders to Build a Culture of Health.

Our findings were encouraging. Several communities are already on the right path. However, our research also shows that community stakeholders need to unite to identify solutions for scaled impact and opportunity. There must be opportunities for stakeholder and community engagement; without initial community buy-in and an effective feedback loop to share best practices, successful programs cannot be created and brought to scale. We must unlock currently untapped resources to fund these initiatives, as opportunities exist on the local and regional level that, once packaged correctly, will become accessible to more communities.

The farmers markets I spoke of earlier are a great example of what this kind of collaboration can achieve. Not long ago, many of these areas that feature an abundance of fresh, local, organic produce and good cheer were blight-ridden. Thanks to local collaboratives formed by city health, education, civic and business leaders, communities of well-being are thriving.

Building a Culture of Health is something that cannot be done alone. Our current health crisis affects all Americans, and we must work together to solve it. Health is not only an individual concern, but a community one, and it imperative that we enhance these models to drive a more productive and healthy workforce. This shift, along with the creation of a marketplace that values prevention, health and outcome-based evidence, and the integration of family and community into wellness, must occur if we want healthy and meaningful lives to be determined by more than a five-digit number.

Martin Scaglione is president and CEO of Hope Street Group, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding economic opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Hope Street Group's health program focuses on upstream issues that could significantly enhance our workforce and economy.

Hope Street Group (@HopeStreetGroup) invites you to lend your voice to the conversation around building healthier communities by joining a Twitter Chat on Tuesday, July 8, from 2-3:30pm Eastern Time using the hashtag #healthycommunities.