APHA 2014: A ReFreshing Collaboration is Building Better Health in New Orleans

Nov 18, 2014, 1:13 PM

If we as a nation are to succeed in building a Culture of Health that benefits every individual, it will require collaboration across sectors, open communication among diverse organizations and a willingness to step out of traditional practices to find effective interventions.

On Monday, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Vice President Michelle Larkin showcased one example of this innovative collaboration that is occurring on the edge of a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans, just a few miles away from this year’s American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting.

At the corner of North Broad Street and Bienville Avenue sits The ReFresh Project—an innovative fresh food hub located in a former warehouse that had been vacant since Hurricane Katrina struck the city nine years ago. Today the site is home to a Whole Foods Market, Liberty’s Kitchen, The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and an onsite farm.

The goal of the hub, according to project founder Jeffrey Schwartz, is to create new eating, working, exercise and community living cultures.

Each aspect of the Refresh Project is designed to realize these goals. 

The ReFresh Project in New Orleans, La.
  • At the Whole Foods market, which anchors the Refresh project development, products are specifically chosen to be both high quality and affordable. Specifically, the store carries more store-line products and often has more sale items than other stores in the Whole Foods chain. Two healthy eating educators are also located on-site to answer questions, craft recipes, and host tours.
  • At Liberty’s Kitchen, a culinary work readiness and leadership program for at-risk youth, New Orleans youth ages 16-24 who are out of work and out of school are given an intensive and hands-on food service training, case management, job placement services and follow-up support. Ninety percent of Liberty’s Kitchen Youth Development Program participants are employed on graduation out of the program and 80 percent are still employed at the six-month benchmark, according to the organization.
  • The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University is the first dedicated teaching kitchen to be implemented at a medical school. The Center provides hands-on training for medical students through culinary medicine classes, and community cooking classes that teach cooking techniques, nutrition and general tips on healthier eating.
  • An on-site community and teaching farm provides a space where neighborhood folks can come learn to grow their own healthy and nutritious food.
  • Early next year two community health workers will begin work at the ReFresh Project to help engage members of the local community in better health behaviors and activities such as healthier cooking, access to care and physical activity. “That’s one way we’ll break down barriers to health care access,” says Schwartz.

With a background in urban planning, Schwartz has even bigger plans for ReFresh in the future, is working to establish ReFresh as an anchor for workforce and economic development along the low-income Broad Street corridor while continuing to serve those who live in the neighborhood now. 

Already, Whole Foods workers, who include ReFresh trainees, say that they see repeat customers from the local neighborhood, while also seeing residents from other parts of the city who may not have otherwise come to the neighborhood.

The ReFresh project has come a long way in a just a few years, and none of the progress achieved would have been possible without reaching across sectors to involve community development organizations, public health organizations, financial institutions and even private enterprise in the effort.

In fact, the ReFresh NOLA Coalition was developed to strengthen the collaborative nature of the project, and constitutes one of The ReFresh Project's most innovative aspects.

Schwartz says the all of the groups will be collaborating on health and community programming, all use an evidence base to monitor and evaluate their projects and manage impact, and share lessons learned and best practices.

Community-centered programming includes health and wellness education, training and activities focused on gardening, nutrition, cooking, active living, and economic well-being.

Community partners in this collaborative effort include Second Harvest, Share Our Strength, Edible Schoolyard NOLA, Friends of Lafitte Corridor, Grow Dat Youth Farm, Latino Farmers Co-op, Louisiana Public Health Institute, New Orleans No Kid Hungry, NEWCITY Neighborhood Partnership, Providence Community Housing, Ruth U. Fertel/ Tulane Community Health Center, the Brinton Family Health & Healing Center, Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center, and Tulane Prevention Research Center. However, the ReFresh NOLA Coalition is a growing partnership and is always looking for new opportunities to collaborate across sectors to improve health outcomes across the Crescent City.

ReFresh follows the guidance of David Williams professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health and the former staff director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America, who opened the session on cross sector partnerships saying “at the local level it’s all sectors working together to improve health. We need to build relationships so we will have those teams in place.”

Today, as 13,000 public health professional gather just down the road, The ReFresh Project is showing us how bringing a diverse coalition together can help create new opportunities, and build a new culture, of better health.

Learn more about the ReFresh Project here, and connect with them on Facebook.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.