Billy Bromage and Jon Atherton, members of a team working on a neighborhood-based approach to tackling public health and “food deserts,” submitted this article.
Can New Haven, a city with tens of thousands of people living in widely different circumstances, move toward better health? That was the question that brought around 35 people to Troup School on Tuesday evening, to talk about health in the Dwight and West River neighborhoods. Community residents and local organizations gathered with partners from the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE), Yale New Haven Hospital and DataHaven to discuss the findings of a 2012 Health Survey conducted in six New Haven neighborhoods.
Over a healthy dinner, the gathering heard from CARE’s Alycia Santilli and Billy Bromage about the survey. CARE hired 20 local residents to go door to door in Dixwell, Dwight-West River, Fair Haven, the Hill, Newhallville, and West Rock-West Hills in the fall, ultimately collecting valuable information from nearly 1,300 residents. The findings show that progress towards better health is possible, with 67 percent of Dwight and West River residents reporting healthy changes to their diet, 64 percent reporting an increase in exercise, and 37 percent reporting improved health compared to one year ago. However, while the 2012 survey identified encouraging trends, like the other neighborhoods in the survey, Dwight and West River continue to be marked by wide health disparities. For example, only 22 percent of respondents in Dwight and West River meet the recommended consumption of fruits and vegetables (five servings per day); more than six in 10 people are overweight (24 percent) or obese (38 percent); four in 10 reported food insecurity. The survey also found widespread concerns among residents about household finances, unemployment and personal safety within their neighborhood, factors that often contribute to poor health.
Tuesday’s community meeting was the second in a series of gatherings designed to inform residents about the survey results and to gather ideas to further improve New Haven’s health. After hearing the data, attendees “voted” on their priorities for addressing health concerns by indicating their first, second, and third priorities among five areas designed to tackle health. Expanding resources for low-cost recreation opportunities received the most votes, followed by making neighborhood streets safer and developing more healthy and affordable food options in the neighborhood.
In the discussion that followed, Kate Walton (pictured), neighborhood resident and community liaison for the Stop & Shop store at 150 Whalley Ave., said that she found the report to be “hopeful and great,” and that she was pleasantly surprised at what she saw as signs of positive change. She said that the data indicates that people are eating healthier and thinking more about health overall, but concerns remained about high diabetes rates, and that knowledge about cooking healthy foods is a significant obstacle to health in her neighborhood. “You can get all the collard greens you want for 99 cents a pound at Stop and Shop,” but people need to be able to cook them well, she added.
AJ Nguyen (at right in photo), a resident of the Dwight neighborhood since the mid 1980s, focused on the issue of perceptions of public safety, which was discussed during the presentation. The survey revealed that three in 10 residents feel unsafe to go for walks during the day in the neighborhood. That number jumped to nearly two in three feeling unsafe at night. Nguyen commented that if “you don’t feel safe in your neighborhood,” you won’t go out to shop, or go out to exercise. Amy Carroll-Scott, CARE’s research director, offered that if neighbors come out together, and take on public safety problems by creating walking groups, for example, they may be able to make progress toward alleviating the perception of a lack of safety on the streets in the neighborhood.
When the conversation moved to assets within the community, West River resident and activist Ann Greene reported that West River residents are “defining ourselves as a community that’s improving and growing, not just holding back the siege.” Building on the momentum of the West River Neighborhood Service Corporation, Greene has been part of the movement to “transition to something better,” where local effort is “attracting energy from other people and organizations” to help move neighbor-initiated projects forward. One example of this movement is the Little Red Hen community garden, which was cited several times during the community meeting.
Do Walker, an artist and member of Fellowship Place, suggested that, in his experience, block parties have been an effective way to bring people in a community together. Several other people agreed that block parties are a sign of a healthy community. Kate Walton offered that Stop and Shop has been glad to support requests for healthy food by people throwing block parties. She said that Stop and Shop is glad to provide “melons and bottled water” when it can, instead of “hot dogs and soda”, as a way to promote healthier food choices
The meeting ended with several people suggesting that one positive and substantive step residents can take is to continue the conversation about health at the monthly meetings of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation. The next meeting is on Tuesday, March 26, with subsequent meetings on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 6:00 p.m at Barnard School.
As the meeting wrapped up, Kate Walton said that she believes that some of the violence that occurs in Dwight-West River neighborhood stems from poor nutrition over an extended period of time. Ann Greene confirmed this notion, saying that some young men selling drugs on corners in the neighborhood are doing so just so they can get a little something to eat. She added that “New Haven is blessed with resources. If we want to make a difference, we need to match the strength of our community with our interests. If you want something to happen, you can help.”
CARE will hold three more community meetings to discuss the survey findings: March 21st at John C. Daniels School in the Hill, March 27th at Wexler-Grant School in the Dixwell neighborhood, and April 10 at Clinton Avenue School in Fair Haven. All meetings start at 6 p.m. with a healthy dinner. Childcare, including homework help, is available for families who attend.