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A growing number of studies prove that a person’s surrounding community the plays a great role in shaping that person and their health. Experts and thought leaders came together recently to discuss how to increase connections between large institutions to support and grow healthy communities.  

The Brookings Economic Studies program hosted an event earlier this month called “New Directions for Communities: How They Can Boost Neighborhood Health.” The gathering focused on the important role of the public, private, and government sectors when it comes to improving the health of local communities. Outgoing District of Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Adrianne Todman took part in the Health Communities discussion. She was joined by Sibley Memorial Hospital Geriatric Nurse Navigator Matt Brown and Capital Area Food Bank Chief of Staff Paula Reichel. The discussion’s moderator was Brookings Nonresident Fellow Kavita Patel.

“Neighborhoods matter,” said Todman as she described two major ways the housing authority tries to improve the built environment for its customers.

The first way is to redevelop old, unhealthy structures into thriving neighborhoods where a variety of household incomes can live with many amenities available. She used Sheridan Station, a formerly rundown empty complex that was redeveloped, as an example of this process.

“Today it is a thriving 300-unit community. We brought back many of the families who used to live there,” she said, noting that one of its amenities is an onsite clinic.

The second way to increase DCHA customers’ options to live in healthy communities is the voucher program. The DCHA Board of Commissioners has increased the value of the vouchers by 75% in order to allow families to have more options throughout D.C., Todman said.

“We’re able to support families achieve the trajectory they want by helping them secure neighborhoods that have stronger schools, better amenities, and social networks” she said.

Brown, who has been a nurse for 10 years, said that he works with patients to educate them about the importance of their care once they leave the hospital. He said many people do not fully understand how to keep a good medication schedule or follow-up going to their treatments. Brown wants to develop a multimedia education program, such as videos, that starts when a patient is admitted to the hospital and continues for the patients even when they get home.

“We need to meet people where they are ready to learn,” Brown said.

He reported that villages are being established within neighborhoods where networks of volunteers can help support each other. There is a membership fee and the volunteers help individuals with their health care and other needs such as changing a light bulb or getting to appointments.

“It is neighbors helping neighbors and I wish [the networks] were bigger,” said Brown.

Patel, the moderator, said that many non-profit hospitals are now helping subsidize village memberships to use their philanthropic dollars on community-based resources that bring connectivity.

The Capital Area Food Bank uses its network of more than 400 primarily small, neighborhood non-profits that distribute their food for connectivity, said Reichel. Her organization serves 540,000 people roughly 46 million pounds of food, covering about 12 percent of the D.C. metropolitan area’s population annually. When they lack one of those neighborhood partners, the bank looks to distribute food directly to the community.

“We’ve really stepped up and evolved our approach to 21st century food banking,” she said. “We address hunger needs while also improving the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve.”

CAFB has been educating partners, improving the nutritional quality of the inventory, and rethinking their nutrition education, for example, sending food out with recipes for healthy meals and shelf life. They also are trying to partner with anchor institutions like schools and grocery stores to help create health behaviors.

Todman said that there are cost savings that is not considered when everyone works together instead of in their individual silos. DCHA already works with the food bank to serve its customers.

“It will cost any large urban city $50,000 to $80,000 to shelter a homeless family. It costs me roughly $15,000 a year to house a family,” she said. “There is a value to housing that isn't just about creating affordable housing. There are other impacts where networks touch a family where we can save money.”

She said more research or political will is needed to make the system more efficient and recognizes the “priceless” long-term benefits for the entire community.

Brown recommended more online connectivity linking individuals within the community to available services -- from ridesharing to grocery shopping--will be necessary, especially as the Baby Boomer generation ages.

Reichel said anchor institutions having consistent messaging and creating access points for everyone in the community would be a great way to address everyone’s needs. 

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Last modified: 5/17/2017 2:26:03 PM