Source: NJ Spotlight
As policy experts continue to sharpen their focus on the importance of fostering healthy communities to keep people well, New Jersey has witnessed a growing interest in – and new funding for – faith-based healthcare programs.
State officials have built partnerships with dozens of religious organizations in Camden, Trenton, and Newark in an effort to reduce obesity and the chronic diseases it contributes to, including diabetes and heart disease.
Early reports suggest the effort, which kicks off its third year in October, has been successful in helping those involved eat healthier foods and get more exercise. More than 300 people were involved the first year and participation may well have since doubled. Organizers said enthusiasm for the program is infectious in some communities.
“It’s really exciting — there’s endless potential here,” said Summer Tatum, a program manager with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, which coordinates the work in that city. (The Trenton Health Team runs the program in the capital city and the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition handles the state’s largest urban area.)
“We’ve found there are so many residents suffering from hypertension, or are pre-diabetic, and they are learning about (their diseases) through this program,” Tatum said. “And the faith-based community is really being lifted up as leaders in terms of healthcare.”
The program is part of a growing interest in how religious organizations can help connect individuals with healthcare. The importance of working with churches, temples, mosques, and other groups was a recurring theme at a conference last week on the need to expand health insurance and access to care, hosted by NJ Citizen Action. Philanthropic groups, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have also funded healthcare efforts tied to faith-based groups in recent years.
For Faith in Prevention, the state provides $300,000 to each organizing coalition each year. Tatum said these groups then make small grants to participating religious organizations to help them get members involved. Funding has been used in Camden to renovate basketball courts, create church-based fitness rooms, and organize exercise or healthy cooking classes, for example.
A report on the first year’s progress, published in February, found it had already made a positive impact on these urban communities, where residents often have limited access to healthy foods or safe spaces to exercise.
In general, people who went through the program said they were more likely to plan their meals in advance, eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods, consume smaller portions, and spend more time physically active. The report said religious organizations themselves benefitted from having members who were more engaged and through their interaction with other groups.
The program works well, Tatum said, because it helps connect people who are at home in a church community – but might not be comfortable in a medical clinic – with important information about their health. “You have a community that is saying ‘faith is important to us.’ I say it’s pretty genius to tap into what people value so much,” Tatum said. “After all, I might see my pastor three times a week, but I might see my doctor just once a year.”