A Healthier New Haven

CARE has started several initiatives in New Haven public schools to encourage health awareness among children.

According to results of a 2012 survey conducted by Yale researchers, residents in some of New Haven’s most under-resourced neighborhoods are beginning to make healthier choices.

New Haven, a city with large health disparities, has traditionally demonstrated higher-than-average risks for chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma and obesity. The new results provide optimism to city officials, educators, and organizations aiming to promote healthier lifestyles and ultimately reduce chronic disease in New Haven residents.

The study, run by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) at the Yale School of Public Health, involved a two-month, door-to-door survey of around 1,300 residents from age 18 to 65 living in the Dixwell, West River/Dwight, Fair Haven, Hill North, Newhallville and West Rock/West Hills neighborhoods. The six neighborhoods are considered some of New Haven’s least-resourced areas, and demonstrate higher rates of chronic disease, smoking, and obesity than both Connecticut and US averages.

Dixwell is one of the New Haven neighborhoods surveyed by CARE.

Results from the survey, however, indicate healthy behavioral trends. Of the residents surveyed, 39 percent reported improved health compared to one year earlier, 40 percent reported that people in their neighborhoods encourage a move toward healthier lifestyles, 42 percent reported changes happening in their neighborhood to make a healthy lifestyle easier, 63 percent reported increasing their physical activity, 58 percent reported making healthy changes to their diet and 65 percent of smokers indicated they wanted to quit. Compared to a similar 2009 survey done by CARE, daily consumption of sweets, sugary drinks and foods high in fat and salt have all decreased, and 17 percent fewer residents report lifestyles that completely exclude exercise.

Oftentimes, poor health is associated with lower income demographics, and survey results show that many residents are still struggling financially. Of those surveyed, 36 percent are “just getting by,” 34 percent have less than $15,000 household income, 23 percent are unemployed, and 44 percent receive food stamps.

CARE hopes to leverage these findings to develop a Citywide Action Plan for better health. CARE is a public health alliance between New Haven leaders and Yale representatives whose mission is to improve New Haven’s health disparities through research and active initiatives. According to CARE Deputy Director Alycia Santilli, CARE utilizes a “community organizing approach at the grassroots level” to achieve these goals. In the past five years, CARE has offered programs such as Quit & Win (a program encouraging smokers to quit), Health Challenges for kids in New Haven public schools to promote healthier eating and exercise habits, and increased access to food stamps for families struggling with food security.

A girl having her face painted by a volunteer at a CARE-sponsored Diabetes Awareness Day. At this public health event, CARE staff provided the community with information on diabetes, blood glucose testing, and various fun activities.

The most recent survey results show there is still significant potential for improvement. While residents seem to be making behavioral changes for the better, health disparities and chronic disease have not decreased significantly since 2009, and financial concerns remain. According to Santilli, CARE realistically expects a slow reduction of these disparities, but hopes to continually push residents in the right direction by promoting healthier lifestyle habits. Only through such cultural changes can long-term health improvements be made.

“CARE [is] extremely committed in using these results and working with neighborhood leaders to make changes at a very local level,” says Santilli. In line with these goals, CARE has already held community meetings to inform residents of its survey results and solicit feedback. Residents suggested several ideas for making neighborhoods healthier, including increased options for low-cost recreational space, more parks and trails, easier access to healthful food options, and cleaner and safer streets.

Moving forward, CARE hopes to further engage with city government, hospitals, health centers, schools, neighborhoods, and other groups to continue its current work and implement new resident-driven initiatives. Slowly but surely, CARE believes these efforts will create meaningful change for the health of New Haven.