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By Honah Liles
Parked in front of the Lowell Community Health Center, in two metered spots, is a full-size pickup truck hitched to a small trailer, with what looks like a little house built on it. Inside the house are bins of locally grown produce. Out front there is a table, displaying the food for sale in a makeshift storefront right on the sidewalk. It’s not the typical spot for a farmer’s market, but once a week, for eight months of the year, that’s where you can find the Mill City Grows mobile market. Anyone coming in or out of the health center, or just passing by, can stop to shop.
“There is so much foot traffic,” says executive director Jessica Wilson. The location was chosen because of the high volume of people coming in and out of the health center, and to support health care providers recommending dietary changes to their patients.
“They want to tell their patients, you know, ‘Hey, eating more leafy greens would be great for whatever your health concerns are and you can get them here on Tuesdays,’” says Wilson. “So it makes it really easy to make that referral.”
Lowell is one of four stops the mobile market makes every week — each stop carefully chosen to reach the people with the least access to fresh produce. Statistically, that is more likely to be communities of color. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, predominantly Black neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores, and the ones with grocery stores are less likely to have healthy options like whole-grains, dairy products, and fresh fruit and vegetables. Mill City Grows also works hard to make sure its produce is affordable, and accepts subsidies like SNAP and WIC.
A healthy diet is key to a healthy heart, which is why community organizations like Mill City Grows — that make affordable, nutritious food accessible — are essential to addressing heart health disparities. While the risk of heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD), is high for the general population, it is even greater for people of color. Black Americans die from heart disease 33% more than the overall U.S. population, according to statistics from the American Heart Association. Meanwhile, Native Americans and indigenous Alaskans die from heart disease much younger than expected: 36% are under the age of 65 compared to only 17% of the overall U.S. population. These disparities are linked to systemic inequities, including inadequate access to healthy food, culturally appropriate health care, and others.
Together under Point32Health, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan are dedicated to eliminating obstacles standing in the way of a more equitable health care ecosystem and working toward delivering meaningful solutions.
The Point32Health Foundation works with communities to support, advocate, and advance healthier lives for everyone by supporting equity focused solutions to advance healthy aging and increase access to healthy food and behavioral health services.
Point32Health Foundation funded Mill City Grows, and also provides support to organizations that are planting the seeds for the heart health of future generations, like Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC). MPDC has seen success with its massive 72-plot community garden, located just across from Madison Park High School in Roxbury. The organization offers plots free of charge to MPDC residents and the greater community and runs programming for all ages.
“From pediatrics to geriatrics, as I like to say,” says Leslie Stafford, MPDC’s health equity and wellness organizer. In addition to having plots for individuals, Stafford runs both an adult and kids gardening club. The idea is to provide not only access to fresh produce, but interest and exposure.
“I have a lot of rules,” says Stafford. “One of the rules specifically for our kids is that you have to grow the vegetables that you like and the ones that you haven’t tried yet.”
She also focuses on making sure people know what to do with the produce they’ve grown – so part of the gardening clubs involve teaching participants how to harvest and preserve produce. They also run cooking classes, and this year, they’re putting out a cookbook with recipes and stories from garden members.
Actively improving health care access
Nutrition, of course, is just one part of the solution. Common risk factors for heart disease include health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, as well as smoking, excessive drinking, and lack of physical activity. Addressing the health disparity means addressing more than just diet.
Initiatives like BMA TenPoint’s Community Wellness, which focuses on helping churches in low-income neighborhoods in the Boston area, run health-focused programming for the entire community.
BMA TenPoint takes a three-prong approach, says Yolaida Martinez-Caro, the program coordinator, focusing on eating habits, fitness, and access to health care. That means the events can fall into any of those categories, but, “The health fairs have been the big doozy,” says Martinez-Caro.
Health fairs feature BMA TenPoint partners like Mass General Hospital, Boston Medical Center, and Harvard Street Health Center, and attendees can get free screenings like blood pressure or sugar checks. The fairs are often all day events, with food and activities.
Health fairs might be the “big doozy,” but BMA TenPoint supports a range of other health-focused programming. What exactly the event is depends on the needs of the church and the community. Ultimately, the idea is for the churches to take the lead in continued health programming.
Healthy heart focus throughout the health care system
Health insurers also recognize the proactive stance they need to take when it comes to connecting members to services that will advance awareness, education, and direct support for cardiovascular health.
For those facing a more serious heart condition, like a cardiovascular disease, navigating long-term and short-term care options can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when multiple providers and medications can be involved. Services like nurse care management offer medically-trained assistance in coordinating a care plan and staying on track.
Prevention and proactive care can have a major impact on heart health and longevity. Point32Health companies Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan offer members access to health coaching as part of their coverage, providing personalized, one-on-one service to help work towards health goals, like weight loss, quitting smoking, managing blood pressure, or starting an exercise plan.
Support can also be available for one of the most critical components to heart health: diet. Programs like Good Measures, offered to Tufts Health Plan Direct and Together members, pairs members with a registered dietitian who will create a customized meal plan that can include healthy versions of favorite foods from many cultures. Many members who have participated in the program have lost weight, improved their blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and slowed down (and in some instances prevented) disease progression.
At the heart of the shared goal: community health
The end goal shared by Mill City Grows, Point32Health, and MPDC are healthier communities in the long term. It’s why Point32Health is committed to partnering across the health care system to deliver accessible and quality care to everyone. It’s why MPDC trains members to become garden leaders and hosts tea parties and events in the garden. And its why Mill City Grows learns to grow culturally diverse produce, has translators on staff, and is in the midst of a multi-year process to turn a local farm into a land trust with hiking trails, community gardens, and a farm stand.
As Wilson puts it, “We’re not just a veggie vendor. We’re a community organization.”