By Danielle Cameron, Chief Strategy Officer for National Health Foundation
Too many times we have heard how zip codes have a greater impact on individuals’ health than their genes; usually in the negative sense. Social determinants of health – conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play – can have wide ranging impact on health risks and outcomes.[i] But these zip codes facing troublesome social determinants of health have an opportunity to rise up and tackle these challenges head-on so that these zip codes are no longer synonymous with poor health, but rather signify some of the most willful, engaged communities working together to improve their environment and collective health.
Rather than viewed for their economic policies, environmental circumstances, social norms, or educational experiences that poorly impact health, these zip codes often indicate the presence of a powerful community of organizers, advocates and change agents. They are shifting the tide in terms of population health – in their own neighborhoods. It’s these zip codes where hospitals, health plans and community-based organizations should be looking to establish multi-sector partnership that leverage local resources and ambition to create the most impactful change.
NHF has had just that experience in South Los Angeles.
According to the ‘Mapping LA’ project of the Los Angeles Times, South Los Angeles is a 51 square-mile region encompassing 28 neighborhoods that are home to more than 749,000 residents and some of the most troublesome zip codes in Los Angeles County.
For the past four years, NHF has been working in a handful of these zip codes with a generation of engaged teens, learning to bring about dramatic changes in their community and succeeding! In particular, they are changing the way South Los Angeles residents view their physical environments, personal health practices, the healthy development of their children, as a means of improving their overall health and wellbeing.
Through a series of student-led programs that emphasize information gathering as well as peer and public input, healthy changes are afoot in a zip code that otherwise has many negative associations.
At Jefferson High School, National Health Foundation’sHealth Academy, a student-led, healthy change initiative has, over the past three years, implemented such ground breaking ideas as a hydration station offering fresh water as an alternative to sodas and juices, reconfigured the lunch room so that all students have time to get lunch and eat it, versus having to go to the snack shop to buy sugary treats to replace meals, and have tested and introduced healthy meal options that are now on the lunch menu. Perhaps the biggest victory was the creation of classroom-based mini farm stands where students can help themselves to a piece of fresh fruit when needed. The initiative caught the eye of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s food services director who acknowledged the thoughtful use of fruit left over from breakfast service, the reduction of food waste, and the increase in opportunity for students to snack on healthy fruits. The district is considering expanding the program to other LAUSD school sites.
Through another project, NHF’s BUILD Health Challenge grant in collaboration with California Hospital Medical Center and the LA County Department of Public Health, student ”Community Health Liaisons” spent several months interviewing residents about their perceptions and needs as they relate to their physical environment. Residents voiced concerns ranging from a need for safe, open spaces for play and exercise, to a desire to walk more and have more opportunities to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The partnership took the information gathered and formulated a Community-Driven Action Plan for Historic South Central. The purpose of the plan will be to implement upstream, meaning preventative rather than curative, solutions to the health issues faced by the community. By lowering or even eliminating some of the social and environmental barriers to health, the team hopes that the community will defy the current statistics that point to lower life expectancy and a higher than average rate of preventable illnesses.
As part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Street’s Initiative, another group of inspired students championed the creation of a Walking Corridor along Central Avenue. Through the use of clever wayfinding signage, the community can now see how far the nearest transit, entertainment, shopping and recreational facilities are located on foot. The signage, unveiled during a community event in May, has been met with the resounding approval of the community and visitors alike.
The community is seeing first-hand that change is most meaningful when it comes from within and is possible when it is led by the energy and passion of one of its most valuable assets: its youth. The remarkable success of these empowered and engaged youth is a reflection of a new and brighter outlook in the zip codes of South Los Angeles.