Reports show that Philadelphia is one of the unhealthiest large cities in the United States. They show disparities between zip codes with huge differences in life expectancy from neighborhood to neighborhood. Within Philly, those in Center City are predicted at 88 years while those in Kensington are only given 68. What reports don’t show is what challenges those in these zip codes face when trying to lead healthier and longer lives.
Because of this, during the past few weeks, the Medicine + Design summer research team has gone out to these under-represented zip codes and have had real conversations with the community members about the causes behind the statistics. What is it that affects their personal health and the health of their communities?
Health Insights 215 (#HI215), is a partnership between Thomas Jefferson University and The Food Trust, made possible by a the generous support of TD Charitable Foundation. The #HI215 team has been attending the The Food Trust’s Farmer’s Markets at 4th & Lehigh and 33rd & Dauphin, giving out health-related prizes such as hand sanitizer and adhesive bandages in return for community members telling us their stories and filling out our Insight Sheets. Our Insight Sheets provide leading questions such as “To me, being healthy means…” and “My community needs…to be healthier”. We have also partnered with the Thomas Jefferson University’s food truck, Nourish’d, to provide wholesome meals with recipe cards to inspire community members to cook delicious healthy meals. This has been a perfect synergy with The Food Trust's programming as they have cooking demonstrations right there at the markets as well.
The insights we’ve received have been enlightening throughout the course of the project. Due to us being situated in Farmer’s Markets where there are vegetables and fruits offered that are typically not available to the residents of these areas, it is common for us to receive insights presenting the communities’ needs for fresh and nutritious food. At 4th & Lehigh, a women who emigrated from Puerto Rico told us about life in her neighborhood and her newfound love for peaches: “I just got some peaches again because my friend gave me some last week from here and I loved them so much. They are so sweet and juicy. Nothing like what we have here in our little grocery.” But on top of the answers of needing healthier food and to exercise more, we receive more details into what hinders the people in these areas from achieving these standard meanings of being healthy.
For instance, when we spoke to a woman in Kensington, she talked about how she was told by her doctor that she needed regular exercise to help with lessening the effects of her heart condition. She chuckled and added, “That would be a lot easier if I felt safer in my own neighborhood. I can’t walk at certain times of the day and I can’t walk too far because it’s just not safe here. We need more security.”
On the topic of issues within their neighborhoods, a woman in Strawberry Mansion expressed, “My community needs more schools, playgrounds, and gyms to be healthier; we need things to keep the 10 to 12 years olds from selling drugs on the streets.” One man also from that neighborhood said his community needed peace to be healthier. He explained to us that he fears for his life as gun violence ravages the neighborhood. Through our work in the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Emergency Department, we see on a daily basis the products of gun violence and drug abuse—huge contributors to early deaths and community disengagement.
When we hear these stories, they bring to mind the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Given the opportunity to come to these neighborhoods and learn what difficulties the residents face when trying to lead healthy lifestyles, we can begin to understand the root causes of these disparities from the point of view of those experiencing them.
None of these issues that we are presented with are easily fixed within a day, not even a year. But, when we are able to gain insight into the problems within the communities, we can work towards reframing the problem—what makes it difficult for people in these neighborhoods to live healthy lifestyles—and work towards helping them to find solutions that fit their situation and need. When we are able to empathize with the people in these zip codes, we can begin our steps to designing a healthier Philadelphia hand in hand with the community. ‘Health’ does not solely encompass what goes into your body and the overall care of one’s body; it also includes communal sentiment and togetherness. The insights brought to our attention by the residents in Kensington and Strawberry Mansion have given us perspective on the communities and the ability to work with them to help their needs in the long run.