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Blog Posts

Healthy Families, Healthy Communities

By Apurva Jolepalem | January 29, 2020

In Chicago’s southwest neighborhoods, common and debilitating community health concerns are largely preventable, yet widening racial and ethnic health disparities in Chicago call for action. 

Two women measure out honey for a green smoothie while two others look on.
Nutrition workshop cooking demonstration.

In March 2017, the Sinai Urban Health Institute published findings from the Sinai Community Health Survey 2.0 about health status in nine southwest Chicago community areas and revealed findings “that would have been masked with city-level data.” The vast majority of these neighborhoods is Black and Brown. Between a third and one half of community members suffer from at least one chronic health condition: diabetes, heart disease, asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obesity among a list of others. Of course, these poor health outcomes directly relate to the challenge of meeting basic needs, which include safe neighborhood spaces, food security, health insurance coverage, and health provider access. 

“If I start where I live,” says parent mentor organizer, Elideth Hernandez, “I hope for a place where people can grow their own vegetables and have access to healthy food. No more corner stores. More healthy markets. We need to teach people to grow their own vegetables and cook healthy meals.” 

Partnering with Aramark and the American Heart Association’s Healthy for Life initiative,  Southwest System of Care (SWSOC) has recently added community nutrition programming to partner schools. These interactive workshops feature group cooking, recipe sharing, health literacy skills, and money-saving hacks. The goal is to create spaces where people can come together and support each other while caring for their family’s health. Most people already know the fundamentals of healthy living, but with busy schedules, tight budgets, and a lack of healthy grocery options, the challenge lies in adopting healthy habits and practices that fit best with an individual’s life circumstances. 

Although these workshops are bilingual, the language barrier remains a formidable health literacy barrier. Grocery stores hang signs in English and nutrition labels are rarely printed in Spanish. Many clinics outside of the immediate community present medical and insurance information without translation. All of this contributes to the fraught relationship that people have with their health. 

Nevertheless, many parents are making strong efforts to encourage healthier habits in their families. Those who attend the workshops are genuinely curious about nutrition and are eager to implement new knowledge, especially recipes. Most of parent participants are already seasoned chefs in their own homes. They share valuable feedback from praxis about ingredient swaps and recipe modifications. Cooking can be a creative, trial-and-error process for people to discover what foods and flavors they like best. For example, in many well-loved Latin-American recipes, a variety of healthier spices and seasonings can serve as replacements for salt and sugar.

Large group of people sitting at desks attentive to someone speaking at a nutrition workshop.
Nutrition workshop presentation.

With the hope that school-based nutrition workshops serve as an early step toward a larger community movement for healthier living, a SWSOC campaign Healthy Families, Healthy Communities aims to continue encouraging community health initiatives. Whether it be increased nutrition and exercise workshops in public spaces or a group advocating for healthier grocery stores, the goal is for more people in the community to talk with more frequency and more openness about improving well-being. 

Two participants stand watching while two additional participants kneel over training manikins practicing CPR.
Participants practicing CPR.

This past October, SWOP partnered with The Oral Health Forum to host a pre-Halloween dental health fair for kids. In January, CPR trainings were held at SWOP. In February, a health fair will offer free screenings and information tables. Additionally, community members can request 1-1 nutrition support and the leader’s club from Marquette Elementary’s Elev8 program will cover important health topics. A lot of opportunities exist for community members to support each other and to create initiatives that promote health and well-being. There is much to look forward to in the year ahead.