The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently paid for a grant through the National WIC Association to improve access to healthy foods and increase opportunities for disease prevention in the East St. Louis area. East Side Health District is one of 17 agencies nationwide participating in the development and implementation of community-driven plans to reduce and prevent chronic disease in high-risk areas.
Why East St. Louis? Studies have shown that limited access to healthy food in underserved communities is not uncommon. An overwhelming 44 percent of SNAP-participating households face food insecurities, according to the 2012 Current Population survey. With Schnuck’s parting the community, we find ourselves in a distressed nutrition environment.
Primary barriers that exist for this community include economic status, difficulty transporting groceries and reaching retail outlets due to lack of reliable transportation and lack of access to healthy options that reflect cultural food preferences. As a result, community-wide health problems are numerous and some severe.
Poor health outcomes are associated with poor nutrition. In East St. Louis there is a high rate of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses. Our efforts are targeted toward reducing the obesity rate and the death rate due to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
One challenge is limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables, which is unfortunately the norm in low-income communities. Numerous studies have shown that with wider availability of fresh produce, there is an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. We intend to work with local food outlets to increase healthy food options and include nutrition information on product displays, especially those targeting youth.
As part of the Community Partnerships for Healthy Mothers and Children Grant project, each awardee, with help from their coalition, will conduct a community health needs assessment. This assessment will ultimately be translated into a community action plan. ESHD has a long history of collaborating with various organizations to provide interventions to improve health and wellness in East St. Louis. As nutrition experts, this puts East Side Health District in a great position to play a leadership role.
One of the project’s nutrition goals is to help all residents raise their level of awareness that their diets are linked directly to their overall health. The target population for this project include women, infants and children. It is important that the community is aware of this nationwide health crisis and know that the National WIC Association, CDC and East Side Health District care about the health outcomes in East St. Louis.
We strongly encourage community participation. When we move into the implementation stage, we will need volunteers to assist with remodeling of food outlets and help with project displays and promoting healthy practices. Please contact us if you have any questions, concerns or ideas. It takes a community to care about their community.
Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes is program manager of the East Side Health District. People interested in being a part of this movement may contact her at LBejoile-Hayes@ESHSD.org.