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WIC Innovates to Support Maternal and Child Health During the Pandemic

May 7, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

As unemployment and food insecurity rates soared, WIC adapted to protect access for the families it serves—but more support is needed.

A mother and child play outside.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bo-Yee Poon and her children left China, where she had been studying Tai Chi for 16 years, to return home to Vermont. What she thought would be a short stay before returning to her studies turned into a much longer one as all flights back to China were grounded indefinitely. With a home but no immediate job prospects in Vermont, Bo-Yee managed to access insurance through Vermont Health Connect, which fortunately made her and her family eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).     

WIC is a federal program that provides critical nutrition assistance to lower-income women, infants, and young children. In 2019, more than 6 million people participated in WIC each month, including roughly half of all infants born in the United States. 

WIC turned out to be just what Bo-Yee and her children needed. It provided access to healthy groceries and tips on how to feed her children vegetables and fruit. But more importantly, it helped alleviate her stress and anxiety around providing nutritious food for her family. She knew that even though she couldn’t work or afford childcare, her family would be taken care of. Today, WIC has helped millions of families like Bo-Yee’s eat healthy food on a lower budget, providing a sense of relief during particularly difficult times. 

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Bringing Clean, Running Water to the Navajo Nation

May 3, 2021, 12:45 PM, Posted by Cindy Howe

Broken promises and structural racism have deprived New Mexico’s Navajo Nation of safe, running water for generations. A Navajo woman shares how she is actively changing this reality, one family at a time.

Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members. The "Water Lady" Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members who do not have access to running water. Photo credit: DigDeep, 2019.

Go to the sink, turn on the tap, get yourself a glass of water. To most people in America, this sounds like the most routine of activities. But for the families I work with on the lands of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, it is not something we can take for granted. And so when water does flow from a faucet inside a home for the first time, the tears often flow with it. This is a moment of deep gratitude and joy for us.

Tó éí ííńá át’é. In the Navajo language, that means water is life. You’ll see these words painted onto our homes and graffitied across the landscape because we understand that life can not be sustained without water. In our culture, it is a sacred element, along with Earth, fire, and air.

And yet almost one-third of my tribe lacks running water. Pause for a moment to consider what that means. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that people in America use an average of 80-100 gallons of water every day. Our families know how to preserve scarce resources, so we use a lot less than that—but meeting basic water needs is still a complex, time-consuming task. Imagine the difficulty of attaching a hose to a 55-gallon water barrel, filling a bucket, and hauling it inside every time you want to cook, bathe, do laundry, or clean the house. Add in the costs of buying bottled water to make sure that what you drink is safe.  

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How Communities Can Support Children and Families to Recover From the Impacts of COVID-19

Apr 26, 2021, 3:00 PM, Posted by Brian C. Quinn, Carolyn Miller

Communities nationwide are showing that helping families recover helps our society recover.

Family greets each other while wearing masks.

COVID-19 has been devastating for children and families.

Millions of parents and caregivers lost jobs and income, hindering their ability to put food on the table. School closures, remote learning, and limited-to-no access to child care has weighed heavily on many, especially those with lower incomes working essential jobs everywhere from grocery stores to nursing homes. The pandemic has also exacerbated existing housing challenges, from high rental costs to an ongoing eviction crisis.

In spite of these challenges, our colleague Jennifer Ng'andu recently noted that families are resilient and hopeful. Because the pandemic weighs so heavily on working families, a key piece of inclusive recovery is ensuring that caregivers and their children have the support they need to thrive.

As researchers, our job is to glean lessons from the data and understand what will help communities recover. Since 2016, we’ve been following 29 diverse communities to understand how they approach health, well-being, and equity. When the pandemic hit, we pivoted to focus on nine of these communities. Doing so allowed us to closely follow COVID-19’s impact and understand local response and recovery efforts.

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It Is Time to End the Sale of All Flavored Tobacco Products

Apr 23, 2021, 12:30 PM, Posted by Matt Pierce

Taking flavored tobacco products off the market would save millions of lives, reduce health care costs, and ensure an equitable approach to better health in the United States.

Smoke free signage is on display at a bustop.

Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of states and cities adopting policies that restrict or end the sales of flavored tobacco products. For these policies to work for everyone, equity must be a central focus, and all populations must benefit from the movement’s success. This means we must push for comprehensive flavor bans and, above all, restrictions on the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Tobacco companies rely on flavors because of how well they work to attract and keep new customers. For decades, the tobacco industry has specifically targeted Black people in America with advertising campaigns for menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products like flavored cigars. Like menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars have been designed to hook kids and have disproportionately harmed Black youth. After Congress banned all flavored cigarettes except menthols, cigar manufacturers increased their marketing of flavored little cigars—or cigarillos—which closely resemble cigarettes. Youth use of flavored cigars increased in subsequent years and has remained especially high among Black youth.

As a result of these pernicious marketing and sales tactics, tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black people in America, claiming 45,000 Black lives a year. Black people in America die at higher rates than other groups from tobacco-related causes like cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

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What it Will Take to Address the COVID-19 Eviction Crisis

Apr 13, 2021, 9:45 AM, Posted by Diane Yentel, Giridhar Mallya

Navigating a public health crisis without a home has been a stark reality for too many in the United States. The problem will intensify unless leaders ensure that federal rental assistance reaches those who need it most.

A man finds eviction notice on the door of the house.

Now that Congress has approved more than $46 billion in emergency rental assistance, will that money reach the millions of Americans who need it most—the lowest income and most marginalized tenants and small landlords?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended the national eviction moratorium, which will prevent tens of millions from losing their homes through June 30. Beyond that, it’s crucial to ensure that emergency rental assistance funds from the two COVID relief packages passed by Congress are distributed swiftly and equitably to tenants with the lowest incomes and others who face systemic disadvantage in accessing public benefits such as Black, Indigenous and People of Color and immigrants.

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Normalizing Men as Caregivers Helps Families and Society

Apr 8, 2021, 2:00 PM, Posted by Gina Hijjawi

Busting the stereotype of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers benefits families and our economy. New research reveals conditions and supports needed for men to fulfill their caregiver roles.

Father and daughter do laundry together.

When we imagine a caregiver, we often picture a woman: a mother caring for young children, spouse, and the daily household chores, a daughter nursing a father with disabilities, or a female child care provider. Historically, women have been expected to serve as primary providers of “caretaking” work, whether it’s parenting or caring for an aging family member or paid work in positions typically associated with women such as child-care providers, nurses, or health aide. Alternativley, men are often expected to be the primary breadwinners and play less of a role in the emotional or physical caretaking of a family. And men in caregiving professions that are most often fulfilled by women (e.g., nursing, child care) are often seen as the exception. While the role of women as caregivers may have been true for much of history, gender roles and intergenerational dynamics are shifting and as Ai-jen Poo, director of Caring Across Generations, notes ‘continuing to associate caregiving with one gender does more harm than good.’ 

Here is the reality: before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, men have been significant providers of care work, both within their families and in their careers. In fact, men actively contribute to the care economy. This is good for them—but, just as importantly, it benefits women and society broadly.

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Harnessing Sports to Build Healthier, More Equitable Communities

Mar 25, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Alisha Greenberg

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award is removing barriers to health equity through sports.

A smiling student holds a basketball while standing in a school hallway.

In Harlem, girls as young as age 6 are figure skating while receiving academic, social and emotional support. In Cambridge, people who were once incarcerated are now on a career path to become fitness trainers. In Atlanta, youth are playing soccer on previously unused land near train stations, repurposed as soccer fields. On both sides of the United States/Mexico border, youth are building friendships and getting professional tennis instruction coupled with academic enrichment.

All four of the unique programs doing this work have received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Sports Award for catalyzing and sustaining change and addressing social determinants of health. They and similar programs that have received this honor are made possible by professional teams, athletes, coaches, and community-based organizations that are using sports to make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. In doing so, they are reaching people who might not otherwise have the chance to engage in organized sports, with the physical and mental health benefits that come with it.

Launched in 2015, the RWJF program now gives up to five awards each year to organizations that bring a deep understanding of community needs, provide safe places to play, and help youth reach their potential by building meaningful relationships, life skills, resilience and more. Acknowledging that sports has a history of oppression and racism, the program also recognizes that it has the power to provide healing, prevent violence, and galvanize communities. We have seen evidence of that over the last year, as athletes and teams have used their platforms and megaphones to advance racial justice, oppose police violence, and more, and teams have turned their stadiums into voter registration sites, polling places and, in recent weeks, vaccination hubs.

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How School Meals Help Families Impacted by the Pandemic

Mar 16, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

School meals are a lifeline to tens of millions of families across the country. Learn about new research showing why healthy meals are so important—and opportunities to help schools ensure more families have access to the healthy foods they need.

Families gather in long car lines at a Houston distribution site. Families gather in car lines at a Houston meal distribution site. Photo Credit: Houston Independent School District

On a typical day before the pandemic, school food service workers across America did far more than serve lunch to the nearly 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, and the nearly 15 million participating in the School Breakfast Program. Many also served afterschool snacks and even dinners for students to take home to their families. These school meals are a lifeline for tens of millions of kids and families who are furthest from economic opportunity.

All of this changed in March 2020 when schools across the country began closing in droves in response to COVID-19. Students in Houston were getting ready for Spring Break just as lockdowns began. This timing meant that instead of being stocked to serve students for the week, refrigerators across the Houston Independent School District (HISD) were empty.

Upon facing the reality that millions of families across Houston would need food, Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer for the HISD, sprang into action.

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Community Health Workers: Walking In The Shoes of Those They Serve

Feb 2, 2021, 10:30 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

By harnessing trust, community health workers are becoming a powerful force for achieving health equity.

Woman wearing protective mask taking groceries from caring volunteer.

It didn’t take long last Spring for Dr. Shreya Kangovi to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic would create a tsunami of inequity where inequity already long existed. Then the murder of George Floyd led to a national racial reckoning, too. Kangovi knew that community health workers (CHWs)—a field she is helping to pioneer and advance—are first responders on all those fronts.

A recipient of a 2019 RWJF Award for Health Equity, Kangovi is a primary care doctor in Philadelphia, a health policy researcher, and a professor who works to improve health equity. Kangovi developed IMPaCT, a community health worker program that relies on trustworthy individuals to help their community members improve their health and well-being. In randomized controlled trials, IMPaCT has improved chronic disease control, primary care access, mental health, and quality of care while reducing hospital admissions. It is the nation’s most widely disseminated CHW program.

Kangovi shared insights about the ways CHWs advance equity and better health, and the role they can play as we cope with and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Understanding Our Health Before the Pandemic Can Help Us Improve It Afterward

Jan 29, 2021, 10:45 AM, Posted by Anita Chandra, Carolyn Miller

Measuring health and the social and economic factors that influenced it before the pandemic helps us understand the kind of risks the nation faced previously. It can also inform how to move forward toward recovery. 

Man receives blood pressure test.

2020 was arguably one of the most difficult years in American history, challenging our resilience and surfacing enduring and systemic challenges to our collective health and well-being. As we continue to measure the pandemic’s impact on short- and long-term health, as well as other social and economic indicators, it is useful to note where we stood pre-pandemic. Understanding the conditions and trends that shaped our health before COVID-19 helps us assess whether the systems now being tested to respond to COVID-19 are robust. 

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), along with the RAND Corporation, shared an update on the national set of measures that we have been using to track our journey toward a culture where every person has a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. The goal of the Culture of Health measures is to offer signals of change with a focus on broader social and economic drivers of health, well-being, and equity, as well as the role all sectors play in influencing health outcomes. Developing a clearer picture of what is changing (or not) via the Culture of Health measures is useful for directing investments and identifying where, as a nation, we need to make progress. 

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