Counties target social, racial disparities among key issues impacting health

by Jacqueline Mitchell

In working to foster better health in their respective communities, Summit County Public Health and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health have identified key priority issues affecting county residents. The agencies outlined several programs that are aimed at decreasing disparities that lead to poor healthy outcomes and increasing access to health care and healthy foods and activities. 

Inclusive play

Summit County Public Health’s Neighborhood Health Unit works on implementing policies, systems and environmental changes at the community level to prevent the onset of chronic disease, said Kristi Kato, SCPH Social Determinants of Health manager. While those programs can target behaviors like tobacco use, they also intervene to provide better access to healthy activities or foods. Recently, for example, the agency partnered with the village of Lakemore and Friends of the Lakemore Park to install inclusive playground equipment at Dodd’s Lakefront Park.

“The playground now includes wheelchair accessible swings, a ‘cozy cocoon’ for escaping overstimulation and an engaging musical drum set,” said Kato. “When planning the playground improvements, a need for more inclusive play opportunities was recognized by leaders and parents in the community. … Our focus was to ensure that our parks created play environments for people of all ages and abilities.”

Healthy food

In another example, SCPH partnered with Springfield Township to expand a community garden next to Schrop Intermediate School. Over the last two years, 16 raised garden beds and two accessible salad tables for seniors and individuals with mobility devices were installed.

“Community gardens play a significant role in improving the local food system and have proven to be an effective way to increase produce intake among food insecure households,” said Kato.

Mental health

SCPH’s Office of Minority Health, meanwhile, works to provide guidance on ways to address racial and ethnic health disparities, which can manifest in mental health conditions.

“Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender or identity,” said Kato. “However, background and identity can make access to mental health treatment much more difficult.”

Only one in three African Americans who need mental health care receive it, she said. African Americans and Hispanics each use mental health services at about one-half the rate of Caucasians, and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate.

In an effort to fight the stigma of mental health issues and treatment in minority populations, SCPH planned to host the first Minority Mental Health Symposium on July 10.

Infant mortality

One of the major issues the Cuyahoga County Board of Health faces is infant mortality, said Angela Newman-White, supervisor for the Maternal and Child Health program at CCBH.

CCBH offers a newborn home-visit program, in which the county performs a free assessment on the mother and infant within two to three weeks of birth. Its Cribs for Kids program is charged with reducing sleep-related deaths, which is the third leading cause for infant mortality, Newman-White said, and the most preventable.

“Our county loses about 20-25 babies due to an unsafe sleep environment a year,” she said.

Most importantly, Newman-White said, CCBH is working addressing community conditions through policy and system changes. Many of the issues surrounding infant mortality stem from structural and systemic racism, she said. Policies that have negative implications on a specific population impact infant mortality rates, she said, because the health of the mother determines the health of the baby.

Sometimes, due to poor health, women are unable to carry a baby to full-term, and premature birth is the No. 1 cause of infant mortality, Newman-White said.

“Black women in other countries don’t have the same negative birth outcomes as they do in Cuyahoga County, which speaks to the way we treat people of color,” she said. “…How do we make sure that black and brown families have access to jobs, quality education, food and equitable treatment in the criminal justice system? A black woman with a college degree is more likely to lose baby than a white woman who dropped out of high school. So it’s a societal issue.”

Food deserts

Roger Sikes, program manager of Creating Healthy Communities at CCBH, said food deserts are another issue the county is focusing on remediating.

One of the program’s main strategies has been implementing high-quality grocery stores in working class neighborhoods using resident perspectives and feedback, he said.

For example, in parts of Euclid, there are food deserts where no quality grocery store exists. CCBH worked in Euclid’s Ward 3 to engage residents and understand their priorities through focus groups and surveys.

“Two clear priorities emerged: people wanted more living wage jobs in their neighborhood and a quality grocery store,” Sikes said.

He said health data reflects that residents in neighborhoods with poverty and high rates of unemployment are more likely to have chronic diseases.

The study revealed that residents wanted a clean, well-organized store, with diverse, affordable and fresh produce, a well-lit parking lot for safety, local hiring strategies and union, living-wage jobs.

The new grocery store in Euclid employs 50 people, so Sikes said the project also connects to deeper issues of economic development and social and racial justice issues.