Community conversation to address food security, personal health in Lawrence, Douglas County
At a community meeting Thursday at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, the Douglas County Community Foundation hopes to bring area partners, individuals and new voices together in one space to talk about the big-picture issues of food security and personal health.
“This session will largely revolve around the idea of health equity and how we can really move the needle for those who may be food insecure as well as who have issues related to the social determinants of health that affect them more greatly than others in our community,” said Chip Blaser, executive director of DCCF.
He referenced varied life expectancy across zip codes in Douglas County. There’s an eight-year gap from the rural western side of the county, where the average life expectancy is 83.9 years, to northern and eastern Lawrence, where it’s 75.7 years. In the middle, at 80.3 years, is most of the city of Lawrence and the northwestern and southeastern portions of the county.
Ahead of the meeting, Blaser and two of the scheduled speakers shared some background information on health equity, food insecurity and what’s going on at the local level.
“That health equity piece is kind of a backbone of what we’d like to accomplish,” Blaser said.
Health equity in Lawrence and Douglas County
Averages can be misleading, and further breakdowns of data can tell a very different story. One such statistic recently caught the eye of Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department Informatics Director Sonia Jordan.
According to American Community Survey data, Jordan said, the overall rate of poverty for Douglas County kids ages 0-5 is 15.7% — that’s below the 2017 national average, 20.1%, and the state average, 16.7%.
By race, however, the numbers are very different. Jordan said that the percentage of non-Hispanic white kids ages 0-5 living in poverty in Douglas County is 11.5%. For African American kids in the same age group, it’s 72.1% — a more than sixfold difference.
Out of all kids younger than 18 in Douglas County, Jordan said, 9.9% of non-Hispanic white kids and 30.1% of African American kids live in poverty; however, “That’s really the most vulnerable age in which we’re going to establish health habits,” she said of the 0- to 5-year-olds.
Jordan helped the health department compile its 2018 Health Equity Report, available in full online via ldchealth.org, and she’ll share further information about the report at the DCCF meeting.
Among some other notable statistics in the report is median household income. Douglas County’s overall is $52,698; for African American and Asian populations, the numbers are $31,042 and $28,313, respectively. According to prior research in the report, a Douglas County resident must earn $33,800 per year to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Lawrence, which means that on average, African American and Asian populations will likely struggle to find safe and affordable housing.
“These are huge issues — issues that can take generations to change,” Jordan said. “And when we look at how far we are removed as a society or as a country from things like the Jim Crow era, for instance, we are not that far removed from institutionalized, systematic horrors of discrimination and racism — overt discrimination, overt racism.”
From a public health perspective, she said, policy advocacy is one way of getting as far upstream as possible. Bringing community leaders, both traditional and nontraditional, together to talk about the issues is a good starting point to have a narrative about what these issues mean in the community and how to make it better, Jordan said.
She related an analogy that she thought fit the situation well: “Do we have to boil the ocean to start to see progress? Or can we just focus on our little area and try to work there and then hopefully over time, we see issues start to change?” she said.
That also means hearing different perspectives from different populations as policies are being implemented at the city and county levels.
“I would just advocate that the success of our community is really going to depend on how well we are able to support and strengthen our population so that we all have an equal opportunity for health over the course of a lifetime,” Jordan said.
“That, really, to me is what the crux of the matter is — that everyone should have those opportunities in place to live a long and healthy life within this community,” she continued, “and that’s just not the case right now.”
Meeting people where they are
Poverty and food insecurity are some of the top issues that have been highlighted in community health planning initiatives in recent years.
One of the most popular ideas to come out of a LiveWell Douglas County health planning meeting in July 2018 was a mobile food pantry, to bring fresh, perishable food to those in need. Less than a year later, that idea is close to becoming a reality, said Christina Holt, chair elect of LiveWell Douglas County.
Holt said that in conversations and focus groups with folks who are facing food insecurity and those in homeless outreach programs, she heard over and over again that transportation was one of the biggest issues. She said there are a number of vulnerable populations, including those with disabilities, seniors and households without vehicles, for whom trying to take a bus to visit a food pantry would be an extreme hardship. Transportation is also a complicating factor for those in communities outside of Lawrence, such as Eudora and Baldwin City.
“Many people who could benefit from Just Food were not able to do so because of transportation barriers,” Holt said, referring to the food bank at 1000 E. 11th St.
Efforts are underway to transform a truck into a mobile food pantry with refrigeration and to plan the truck’s routes, Holt said.
Even for those for whom transportation wasn’t a concern, oftentimes area food pantries’ hours were, Holt said. Just Food has adjusted from having evening hours just a couple of days per month to now hold them four days per week, and she said the Ballard Community Services food pantry has added Saturday hours.
Holt also mentioned efforts underway to reduce food waste. The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and LiveWell have been working with Lawrence Public Schools and the University of Kansas to divert more usable, healthy food to be available to those in need, she said; also, area restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores and institutional partners are donating leftovers, and Holt said Just Food recovers 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of food each day.
“Having the mobile food pantry will be a great way to help disseminate that food to those in need,” Holt said.
In addition, as the Journal-World has reported, Baldwin City is offering a food program for the first time this summer to offer free lunches for kids.
“That is huge for reducing barriers to access to healthy summer meals for kiddos in that community,” Holt said.
There are other “Fuel Up 4 Summer” sites around Lawrence, plus one in Lecompton. More information is available at fuelup4summer.com.
Holt plans to share more information about these efforts and more news from LiveWell during the DCCF conversation.
More about the DCCF meeting
Thursday’s will be the second of three such convenings that DCCF is hosting this year; the first, in April, focused on affordable housing, and the third, in September, is on behavioral health.
The foundation’s goal is to bring community partners together along with individuals who want to help, whether they’re “charitably inclined,” they’re affected by the issues of discussion or they’re just interested in learning more, Blaser said.
Blaser said after speakers give short presentations, those who attend the community conversation will break into small groups to discuss the issues and brainstorm possible solutions, “as well as ways people feel like they can and want to be involved in trying to find solutions to really make our communities healthier as a whole.”
Holt said she hoped that even folks who are brand new to this kind of effort would come to the meeting to learn more.
The community conversation is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 27 in Flory Meeting Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St.
“This is meant to be in a very inclusive discussion and call for ideas of how we as a community can address these issues,” Blaser said.
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