Brian D. Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, runs a program called Place Matters. It empowers local leaders in communities to identify and address social, economic and environmental issues that affect health in neighborhoods.
"When we're talking about social and racial health inequities, it is important to remember that because of residential segregation there are stark differences in neighborhood conditions," Smedley says. "For example, in some of our most segregated communities in the US, we see an abundance of fast food outlets and carry out stores selling products that are not necessarily healthy. We also see a lack of grocery stores and access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When we tell people that they need to eat their fresh fruits and vegetables every day, sometimes this is easier said than done."
Smedley says that many segregated communities with higher levels of poverty are overwhelmingly communities of color. "Sometimes these food inequities have a direct relationship to the health status inequities that we see," he says. "There are other problems like environmental degradation that is disproportionately found in communities of color, and other issues include access to parks and recreation facilities. These are the types of problems we try to tackle with Place Matters. We're trying to help leaders in these communities identify the neighborhood conditions that shape health, and collect data to document these conditions and use this evidence to advocate for policy strategies that will address this condition, and make the community healthier."
He says multi-sector coalitions are needed to build public awareness and the will for action. "We're educating public officials about the differences in neighborhood conditions and why Place Matters for your health. When it comes to your health, your zip code is more important than your genetic code in many cases. So knowing that, we change the conversation so that health is more than a byproduct of what you put in your mouth or exercise. It's also about neighborhood conditions and how we structure opportunities in America. When kids of color disproportionately are in communities that are not conducive to good health and good mental health, we are not only robbing them of the opportunity for good life outcomes but also robbing our nation at large of their talent."