Urban colleges can improve the health of nearby marginalized communities

By Deloris Penn

Most would agree that neighborhoods with gyms, grocery stores and other wellness resources are as fundamentally part of the American lifestyle as baseball and apple pie. However, for many Americans living in underserved urban communities, access to these vital staples is limited.

Specifically, people residing in these typically low- to middle-income, mostly inner city neighborhoods have less access to nutritional education, recreational facilities and healthy food than more affluent areas.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock) showed that getting an urban academic institution involved in providing these resources to a nearby marginalized (excluded) community can make a significant change in the quality of life of its residents.

The researchers discovered that when they opened UA Little Rock’s recreational facilities to the greater metropolitan area, hosted a seasonal farmer’s market and provided free education and counseling about healthier eating habits, the local population’s overall health improved. Based on the positive outcomes seen in their project, the researchers believe that such a strategy can be just as successful in other cities across the nation.

Janea Snyder, Ph.D., assistant professor of health education and promotion at UA Little Rock and lead author of the study, frames it perfectly: “If a neighborhood is surrounded by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, the residents of that neighborhood are more likely to eat fast foods and processed foods,” she says. “Whereas, if a neighborhood is surrounded by farmer’s markets and healthier options like grocery stores, the residents are more likely to eat healthier whole foods.”

“The lack of access to nutritional foods, fitness centers and other health resources in many communities leads to developing preventable chronic illnesses related to obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes,” Snyder adds.

In the United States, obesity has alarmingly reached an epidemic level, with 1 in 3 Americans now considered obese. Medical professionals say that if the problem continues, it’s estimated that the cost of dealing with diseases related to obesity will increase to nearly $48 billion annually by 2030.

Credit: Graphic created with public domain images via Unsplash.com

To address the health disparities faced by UA Little Rock’s local community, Snyder and her colleagues partnered with local and national grant-funding organizations to support community wellness fairs. These were used to evaluate the need in UALR’s community for more access to healthy food sources and recreational facilities.

“We learned that there are three key factors that should be addressed in urban areas, like ours, to improve the community’s overall health: raise awareness, provide physical and nutrition education, and support the adoption of positive health behaviors,” Snyder explains.

The community wellness fairs, she says, were instrumental in providing knowledge and data about a variety of health-related conditions in the area. By identifying the most common diseases, counseling was customized to meet the needs of the participants.

One of the key aspect of the program, Snyder says, is empowerment. “By meeting people where they are, helping them understand their current health status and providing a recommended plan, they are more empowered to make changes with diet and exercise,” she says.

Just for participating in the wellness fair, over 300 participants were given a grant-funded, one-year gym membership. This included access to weight and cardio equipment, an indoor track and outdoor trail, an aquatic center, basketball and racquetball courts, and group fitness classes.

Along with the gym memberships, nursing and health education volunteers provided the study participants with free training about healthier eating options. Since the study area has only one grocery store, the university hosted seasonal farmer’s markets to provide fresh local produce.

During the two-year period for the wellness study, the research team tracked vital signs for all participants, including blood pressure, glucose levels, weight, body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage.

After the intervention by UA Little Rock, the majority of the study’s participants showed significant decreases in pulse rate, glucose level, weight, BMI and body fat percentage.

Overall, there was an average weight loss of 12 pounds, while glucose levels, which diagnose diabetes, dropped by an average of almost nine points.

Throughout this study, the research team at UA Little Rock tested what they feel is a blueprint for urban colleges nationwide to reach beyond their traditional role in the community and provide necessary but sorely lacking resources to fit the health needs of their neighbors.

“You can’t treat each individual the same. Health programs should be tailored to meet the needs of the individual,” insists Snyder. “Not all communities are created equal, and we must help residents address the specific barriers that impact each of them because the overall quality of life for our neighbors truly depends on it.”

Deloris Penn holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Memphis and is currently pursuing her graduate degree in professional and technical writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Deloris is a content creator in the healthcare + nutrition space, and she has a blog called Arkansas Vegan. She is working on her first book about processed foods. Deloris is best reached by email at dmpenn@ualr.edu.

This story was produced as part of NASW's David Perlman Summer Mentoring Program, which was launched in 2020 by our Education Committee. Penn was mentored by Michael E. Newman.

Hero image by M. Maggs from Pixabay 

Deloris Penn

Michael E. Newman
Sep. 16, 2020