Contributor: Michellene Davis, Esq.
To learn more about Michellene, click here.
RWJBarnabas Health is the most comprehensive academic healthcare system in New Jersey, covering over five million people. Our primary mission is to create healthier communities. In order to accomplish this goal, we realized we needed to move beyond the walls of our hospitals and healthcare facilities to address not only the clinical factors affecting one’s health, but also the social, economic, and environmental factors as well. Only recently have healthcare industry experts begun to attribute health outcomes to the social environment surrounding a person’s well-being. These social determinants of health are estimated to impact almost 80 percent of health outcomes.
New Jersey is the nation’s most densely-populated and economically diverse state. It is also the third wealthiest state in the nation, yet nearly 3.4 million New Jersey residents cannot afford to meet their basic needs. Over 1.9 million people live in homes that are too expensive, overcrowded, or lack adequate plumbing, and 919,000 New Jerseyans go to bed hungry each night. The cost of living is increasing, and low-wage jobs continue to dominate the landscape. When people cannot afford food, heat, or housing, it significantly affects their health.
RWJBarnabas Health is dedicated to effectuating meaningful change by addressing the social determinants of health, including economic stability, education, food security, affordable housing, and safe living environments. The Social Impact and Community Investment (SICI) Practice was developed to tackle these social, economic, and environmental conditions that affect poor health outcomes, reduce life expectancy, and result in higher costs.
Paramount to our work in this area is the many partnerships we have forged with diverse local, state, and national organizations and businesses as well as government officials and entities. Together, we collectively co-design long-term, sustainable, evidence-based initiatives. Policy, paired with data, research, and advocacy, allows our social impact practice to proactively address the systemic issues associated with poverty, reduce disparities, and foster equity.
On the national level, we are members of several organizations focused on doing this work, including as a founding member, the Healthcare Anchor Network, a collaboration of more than 40 health systems that build more inclusive and sustainable local economies through anchor mission-driven efforts such as commitments to buy and hire from the local communities that they serve.
On the state and local levels, we collaborate on initiatives aimed at achieving health equity through the elimination of health disparities. In New Brunswick, Middlesex County, Jersey City, and Somerset we work with government, local community-based organizations, and other healthcare providers to address affordable housing. One such initiative, New Brunswick Healthy Homes Collaborative, partners with local organizations to ensure safe housing. With our partners, we have trained community members to perform healthy housing assessments in order to evaluate what household hazards, such as lead, asbestos, and mold, exist in homes throughout the city. Complementing this effort is Coming Home Middlesex County, which provides intensive case management to individuals who are high utilizers of the emergency room and connects them with the necessary support services, including housing rental vouchers. A similar program, Familiar Faces, provides case management and housing vouchers to individuals who are high utilizers of hospitals, shelters, and prisons in Jersey City. Healthy Homes Somerset is yet another example where we are renovating single-family homes to offer as transitional housing and case management services for those with a chronic or acute disease.
As a result of our efforts and working with our policy partners in Trenton, the State’s capital, our Newark-based flagship hospital Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s greenhouse and farmer’s market became the state’s first hospital-based vendor to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Therefore, the fresh fruit and vegetables produced by The Beth Greenhouse are available at a weekly farmer’s market to all residents of an area designated a food desert. The Beth Greenhouse format is being replicated at other key system sites where access to nutritious, affordable food is a community need. Most recently, we advocated revising the policy which permits farms less than five acres and those that accept SNAP to qualify as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) vendors. Previously, WIC, which operates two key programs - the Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program - could only be used at authorized WIC vendors or those farmers who had five or more acres of land, thus limiting access for individuals who lived in areas that WIC-certified farmers could not or did not transport goods, as well as limited earning potential for small, urban farmers. This change will increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, increase utilization rates, and stimulate local economies.
Earlier this year, we launched Wellness on Wheels (WOW) through a partnership with MedPro Wellness and EcoMedia. WOW is a mobile education center that includes a hydroponic greenhouse and cooking school developed to address economic instability, reduce food insecurity, increase health literacy, and combat the prevalence of obesity. By engaging audiences to choose healthy foods and cooking methods, WOW empowers individuals to make informed food choices and provide access to healthier but convenient options.
At RWJBarnabas Health, we have also changed our business model embedding a “local” approach within our hiring, purchasing, and investment practices. We have engaged many segments of corporate assets to not only purchase directly from locally-owned businesses, with a primary equity focus on Minority-Owned, Veteran-Owned, and Woman-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs), but to encourage vendors to subcontract with local businesses, provide goods for their services from local MWBEs, and incorporate these practices into their business models.
Highlighting our partnerships with organizations that are in and of our communities are our relationships in Newark with both Rutgers University-Newark and the Newark Alliance.
At Rutgers Newark, we are working with our partners to identify, develop, and connect entrepreneurs with the resources to take their business from idea to reality. We were also connected to a local urban agriculturalist who spearheads educational sessions throughout the community with the hospital, and together, we are raising awareness about food insecurity and healthy eating alternatives.
Our partners at the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation retain, attract, and grow businesses, enhance small and minority business capacity, and spur real estate development throughout the city’s diverse neighborhoods. We are proud to work with them to achieve varied efforts to sustain equitable economic growth, generate jobs, and create wealth for the citizens of Newark.
These critically important partnerships enable us to elevate and implement ideas that are truly making a difference in our communities. Together, our collaborative and collective efforts will take years to see a measurable impact, but we are working to make many positive systemic changes that will last for decades to come.
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