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Connecting Systems to Build Health Equity During COVID-19

Jul 13, 2020, 10:00 AM

COVID-19 has magnified vast racial inequities in health, underscoring an urgent need to improve alignment of medical, social and public health systems. Explore a new $1 million funding opportunity for researching systems alignment and how COVID-19 tests such collaborations.

Demonstration sign.

A Personal Journey

It's hard to describe water to a fish while it’s swimming in it. I was that fish, growing up in a working-class, majority Black community in southwest Ohio. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me to question why my school had metal detectors and armed police officers at every entrance yet so few textbooks that students had no choice but to share. Or why we had to travel to find affordable fresh vegetables while unhealthy food nearby was as easily accessible as  payday loans and other predatory financial products. Having unmet needs was normal in these waters.

I was in high school when I began wondering why there were so many of these unmet needs in my community. An invitation to a cancer research conference hosted at a neighboring public school was an eye-opening experience. The school was one of the top-ranked in the state, nestled in a wealthy neighborhood with a well-stocked grocery store and multiple banks within walking distance. 

These waters were different.

That sense of unfairness filtered into my own life from another angle. I attended a school with limited resources which meant that opportunities within the school were offered to only a few. Since my mother was a powerful advocate for my education, I had access to after-school activities and advanced placement classes while friends living on the same block did not. That bothered me too.

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To Help Recover From COVID-19, We Need Universal Free School Meals

Jul 9, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

As school officials face tough decisions about the 2020–2021 school year, the last thing they should be worrying about is determining who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Empty school lunch room.

For tens of millions of children in the United States, school isn’t just a place to learn, but a place where they can depend on receiving healthy meals. In March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 31 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and more than 17 million participated in the School Breakfast Program (SBP); the vast majority of children receiving these school meals are from families with low incomes.

So when COVID-19 swept across the nation this spring and forced at least 124,000 schools in the United States serving 55 million students to close, a public health crisis quickly became an education crisis and a nutrition crisis.

School districts responded quickly, creatively, and heroically, implementing “Grab and Go” models allowing parents to pick up meals in school parking lots or other community hubs; loading up school buses with meals and dropping them off at stops along neighborhood routes; and delivering meals directly to students’ homes. USDA did its part by issuing a series of waivers granting more flexibility in how meals could be prepared, packaged, and served. Particularly for students living in poverty and areas where healthy foods are typically scarce, the heroism of school officials and volunteers was a lifeline.

Today, there are more questions than answers about the 2020–2021 school year, which may be unlike we’ve ever experienced. But the last thing school officials should be worrying about upon reopening is how to process meal applications and figuring out who qualifies for free or reduced-price categories; their mission of educating and feeding students as safely as possible should be their primary concern.

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Reducing Childhood Obesity Now May Help in the Next Pandemic

Jun 23, 2020, 10:45 AM, Posted by William H. Dietz

Research suggests that obesity leads to greater risk of becoming severely ill from diseases such as COVID-19. How can we address health disparities that contribute to obesity to better protect our children from future public health crises?

A woman and child pick fresh fruits and vegetables from a food cart.

Among the many lessons emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is the impact of obesity. People with obesity and associated diseases tend to become sicker and are more likely to die when COVID-19 strikes.

We know childhood obesity is a powerful predictor of obesity in adulthood. It puts children at increased risk for developing numerous health problems later in life, including diabetes and heart disease. In addition to these chronic diseases, early research suggests that obesity may also increase their susceptibility as adults to serious illness like COVID-19.

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In West Baltimore, Physical Distancing Was a Way of Life Before COVID-19

Jun 1, 2020, 10:00 AM, Posted by Yolanda Ogbolu

Further physical distancing during COVID-19 has made us find creative and generous ways to strengthen connections.

Illustration of a family.

Imagine what it’s like to live on a block where elderly neighbors are bolted behind their front doors for fear of venturing out. Where parents worry daily about safety, so they resist letting children play in the neighborhood. Where more than half of the houses lie empty.

These images are not consequences of life under a pandemic. This was life pre-COVID-19 for the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up and now work as a nurse researcher.  

For the past year, my research team at the University of Maryland, the Black Mental Health Alliance, the PATIENTS program, and B’more for Healthy Babies at Promise Heights, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has been listening to residents of two disadvantaged neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Residents told us they were “self-isolating” from family, neighbors and the community to cope with living in a neighborhood where they don’t feel supported, safe, or connected.

As one resident put it: “A lot of things scare us...it makes us not want to allow our kids to go to the recs that open because we fear that a drive by [shooting] or...standing in the doorway you can get shot.”

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How the Future of Work May Impact Our Well-Being

May 15, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

COVID-19 has rapidly compounded problems shift workers and gig economy contractors face, with implications for individual, family, and community health. What can we do to advance health equity in this new reality? Apply for funding to help us explore.

A man driving a car.

Editor's Note: The health impacts of our rapidly changing work environment are often overlooked. Since 2018, when this post was first published, we reported on the health equity implications of unstable incomes, unpredictable schedules, and lack of access to paid sick leave. In the wake of COVID-19, these questions about health equity are more important than ever. See what we’ve learned, and apply for funding to explore what the next five to 15 years may hold for workers.

When her regular job hours were cut, Lulu, who is in her 30s and lives in New York, couldn’t find a new full-time job. Instead she now has to contend with unsteady income and an erratic schedule juggling five jobs from different online apps to make ends meet. Cole, in his first week as a rideshare driver in Atlanta, had to learn how to contend with intoxicated and belligerent passengers threatening his safety. Diana signed up to help with what had been described as a “moving job” on an app that links workers with gigs. When she arrived, she had to decide whether it was safe for her to clean up what looked to her like medical waste.

Work is a powerful determinant of health. As these stories about taxi, care, and cleaning work from a 2018 report show, it is a central organizing feature of our lives, our families, our neighborhoods, and our cities. And work—its schedules, demands, benefits, and pay—all formally and informally shape our opportunities to be healthy.

But the world of work is rapidly changing. Job instability and unpredictable earnings are a fact of life for millions. Regular schedules are disappearing. With “predictive scheduling,” a retail worker today is essentially on call, making everything from booking child care to getting a haircut impossible until the work schedule arrives. Health and other fringe benefits are less often tied to the job. Nearly six in ten low-wage workers today have no paid sick leave. Two-thirds lack access to employer-based health care benefits.

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Caring for Mental Health in Communities of Color During COVID-19

May 5, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Lack of access to testing, fear of being profiled while wearing face masks, and other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health in communities of color. Learn what one leader is doing about it.

Man with hand on forehead.

One of the most troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is exacerbating long-standing and deeply rooted inequities in communities of color. Health disparities stemming from structural racism have contributed to COVID-19’s devastating toll on blacks and Latinos in America. Often overlooked is how heightened stress from this heavy burden is impacting mental health.

Yolo Akili Robinson, a recipient of the RWJF Award for Health Equity, is swiftly responding to this new reality the pandemic has created. As the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), he leads his colleagues in training health care providers and community activists, as well as non-mental health professionals (family members, peers, etc.) to address mental health needs in communities of color. Robinson is witnessing firsthand how lack of access to testing and fear of profiling while wearing face masks, among other issues are increasing toxic stress and straining mental health.

In the following Q&A, Robinson shares insights about the impact and implications of COVID-19 on mental health within communities of color.

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The Plague Doctors: Imagining the Pandemics of the Future

Apr 16, 2020, 9:45 AM, Posted by Karen Lord

An acclaimed author reflects on the startling connections between her fictional story on a pandemic and our current reality.

Scientists in protective clothing holding test tubes in lab setting.

In the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, published earlier this year, Dr. Karen Lord and nine other writers use the power of fiction to help us imagine paths that may lead to a healthier, better place for all--and those that may lead us astray.  

In her short story The Plague Doctors, Dr. Lord envisioned what life on a small island during a pandemic might look like. Now, she reflects on foreseeing some of today’s challenges and solutions in her latest blog post.

Note: The following post originally appeared on the William Temple Foundation Blog and has been republished with permission. 

Last year, I was asked to write a story about the future of health. Speculating about the future is my job, but for something this specific and important, I asked Dr. Adrian Charles to be my advisor for all things medical. We chose that perennial favourite of history and fiction—a pandemic—never guessing that within weeks of the story’s publication, history would become present, and fiction real life.

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The Impact of Changing SNAP and School Meals During COVID-19

Apr 3, 2020, 8:00 AM, Posted by Jennie Day-Burget

Emergency relief would shore up programs, but longer-term proposals would still reduce access to food stamps, make school meals less healthy.

A sign indicates that a school is closed.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in thousands of deaths in the United States and has upended daily life for millions of people across the country. Part of the emergency response at all levels of government has been to ensure that children and families continue to have access to healthy affordable foods.

The largest nutrition assistance program in the United States is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—sometimes known as food stamps—with the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs also among the largest. These programs have become even more critical during the current pandemic, but pending changes to those programs would fundamentally change how they are run and who has access to them.

I spoke with Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), to better understand how recent coronavirus relief legislation impacts SNAP and school meals, as well as some of the longer-term proposals in both areas.

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Incarceration Rates: A Key Measure of Health in America

Apr 2, 2020, 1:00 PM, Posted by Carolyn Miller, Douglas Yeung

Mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity for individuals, families and communities. That’s why we have included it in the 35 measures RWJF is using to track progress toward becoming a country that values and promotes health everywhere, for everyone.

American flag behind barbed wire fence.

As coronavirus sweeps our nation it has brought deep-seated health inequities, including those linked to incarceration, to the forefront. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are putting prisoners at risk now more than ever. Persistent, widespread reports that guards and prisoners are testing positive for COVID-19 are especially alarming, and a sobering reminder that quarantines are nearly impossible among incarcerated populations. To address this, many jurisdictions are releasing select prisoners.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has long recognized how incarceration adversely affects health and health equity for prisoners as well as families and communities. With some 2.2 million adults and youth in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and jails, the United States incarcerates many more people—and a higher percentage of our population—than any other nation in the world. There is widespread agreement that incarceration has adverse effects on health and health equity, not just for prisoners themselves but also for families and communities. That’s why, in 2018, RWJF included it among 35 illustrative measures we are using to track our progress toward building a Culture of Health in America—that is, becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone.

The measures linked to RWJF’s Action Framework are intended to be viewed together to identify priorities for investment and collaboration, and to understand progress being made toward realizing our vision. We are also considering the impact each individual measure has on efforts to build a Culture of Health. Because mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity, tracking it allows us to examine how it compounds the persistent challenges associated with achieving health equity nationwide and affects communities.

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Global Approaches to Curb the Health Impact of Climate Change

Mar 23, 2020, 8:45 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Cities from around the world have a lot to teach us about improving our planet's health. Their efforts can inspire us to be resourceful, creative, and inclusive as we work to tackle climate change and its health impacts.

Global illustration.

In times of crisis, it becomes readily apparent how interconnected we are and that sharing learning around what works and what doesn’t is of utmost importance.

We are seeing this with COVID-19, as learning from Singapore, from Italy, from South Korea and from China is informing the efforts of other countries—including the U.S. response.

The same is true of climate change.

A recent survey found that the proportion of Americans who are concerned about climate change tripled over the last five years and is now at an all-time high. 

Whether it’s raging wildfires; stronger, bigger hurricanes and tornadoes; more extreme heat events; or worsening air pollution, people in cities across the United States and around the world are seeing, living and having to manage the impact.  

What’s worse is that damage caused by global climate change magnifies inequities, placing the most vulnerable communities and individuals at greatest risk. Historic and social factors, such as access to health care; where you live or work; your age; and your income can all impact how and how much climate change harms your health.

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