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Aetna Foundation Sponsored Series

Building Healthier Communities

Aetna Foundation Leverages Philanthropic Investment to Build Healthier Communities

By Jan Lee

Take a drive through a neighborhood you haven’t visited recently, and you may notice something odd.

Maybe it’s a semi-rural area that hugs an industrial center where your neighbor works: the area with declining property values that seems to be frozen in time, with storefronts that have been shuttered for years and pockets of houses with broken sidewalks.

Or maybe it’s that pretty, winding hillside of older houses that you pass by each morning on the way to the gym, the one framed by green spaces and fast-paced traffic corridors speeding toward the city center.

Park your car and take a stroll through any of these neighborhoods, and you may find something missing – something most Americans assume is a part of everyday life in the 21st century: easily accessible stores.

Yes, there’s likely a corner store at the main intersection that features canned food and deli slices. Or there may be a full-service grocery store a few miles away, which amounts to a 30-minute round trip or more by bus.

But for some 23 million Americans, getting to a store for fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods can be a problem if they don’t have a vehicle. Researchers commonly refer to such neighborhoods as “food deserts.” These areas aren’t necessarily economically depressed, either.

Although nearly half of those 23 million residents live below the poverty line, a lack of access to nearby stores that have adequate nutritional foods exists at every strata of the population -- and in just about every city, from the economically struggling downtown quarter to the semi-affluent suburbs. And not surprisingly, food deserts dominate rural areas that are stitched together by small towns, country farms and few stores in between.

Changing Americans’ access to healthy nutrition and replacing those food deserts with well-stocked stores starts at the local level, says Dr. Garth Graham, president of the nonprofit Aetna Foundation, which each year provides funding to local stakeholders that can find new ways to improve health equity in their neighborhoods.

That funding comes in many forms -- from nationwide competitions to incentivize cities and counties to start grassroots initiatives, to providing grants, guidance and technology information to help small businesses with big ideas succeed.

Or it may involve funding technological and medical research that has the potential to revolutionize how we age and how we heal.

Aetna Foundation: Healthy cities, sustainable businesses

One of the Foundation’s more popular initiatives is its Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge, which dares cities, counties, and Native American tribes to find new and unexpected ways to combat issues like obesity, declining life expectancy and other challenges in their communities.

Entrants must not only demonstrate ways their community can benefit from the initiative, but also offer “replicable strategies” with measurable and demonstrable results.

The top 50 finalists receive seed funding of $10,000, adding up to $1.5 million in prize money over the next several years. Winners are challenged to combine the cash with other community funding sources to accomplish their goals.

The 50 finalists include communities like Perris, California, which sees community gardens, healthy eating and education as important links to creating “health equity” in the city. Hillsborough County, Florida, near Tampa Bay, sees small community gardens as the key to increase both residential access to fresh food and healthy walking and biking for able-bodied residents.

Other contestant cities like Miami see improving healthcare access for low-income residents and individuals struggling with substance abuse as the way to increase health equity in its Little Havana neighborhood.

The Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge is intended to "recognize and incentivize cities and counties that are doing innovative things on the ground to address social determinants of health,” Dr. Graham told 3p. “Our goal is to work with those locations that are most committed to improving not just the physical health but the social problems throughout the city.”

The Foundation emphasizes the use of evidence-based models, Dr. Graham told us, because its experts believe the path to improving healthy living is ensuring successful local initiatives can be duplicated in other communities.

“And to do that, it has to be based in evidenced-based infrastructure that is both effective and replicable,” he explained.

Startups and technology

The same is true for the small businesses the Aetna Foundation works with in its Innovation in Underserved Communities Funding program. The Foundation has been known to grant funding to small businesses that can demonstrate constructive ways to weaken the impact of America’s food deserts. Concepts like the EatFresh website, developed by Leah’s Pantry, work to not only address food inequity issues, but also language obstacles in growing cities.

Incentivizing change “is really about lowering the barriers of entry so people who are existing locally can enter the marketplace,” Dr. Graham told us. That includes taking into account the local, and sometimes hidden, language and cultural barriers that can keep a business and its potential consumers from connecting.

“There are a lot of people who have the ability to make these things on a personal or a macro basis but have challenges commercializing it, even locally,” explained Graham. “We work with a number of grantees that use innovative technologies like cell phone technology to allow them to accept not only credit cards but food stamps. ... Those are the kinds of things we believe are important.”

Another area where technology plays into the organization’s impact funding is in health care. The ARMstrokes app, funded with the help of the Aetna Foundation, provides recovery support and guidance for individuals who are working to regain movement or abilities that were impaired by a stroke.

“[We] are focusing on helping and training folks in both stroke recovery and in identifying key aspects, both clinical and non-clinical, that lead to better outcomes,” Dr. Graham told 3p.

Asked what the common denominator is when deciding what type of community initiative or business would benefit the best from its investment, he said the foundation “aligns our dollars more with our mission and impact.” When it comes to impact investing and philanthropy, it's all about deciding what you are ultimately trying to accomplish and staying true to both the goal and the desired impact, he explained.

“Many times with investing, you can go an inch deep and very wide. We prefer to go very deep within geographic areas and [not just] in terms of location but topic areas,” Dr. Graham said, adding that the Foundation looks to not only what is relevant to the company, but to its employee base as well. "We have found that impact investing and investing where we can measure our [effect] appropriately has been the most beneficial.”

Employee enthusiasm is a valuable asset

And taking into consideration what the local employee base feels is particularly important, Dr. Graham explained, especially when trying to inspire engagement in the values and interests the organization is attempting to bring to the community.

“What we have found is employees have a natural passion in their work lives. So tapping into the things that really matter to the company or foundation’s workers means increased desire to be a part of the organization and its accomplishments."

When it's all said and done, acting locally “but thinking globally” is what has allowed Aetna Foundation to provide its best support in communities in need, Dr. Graham said. And the grants it affords to underserved neighborhoods will likely impact these communities for years to come, as they forge their own paths to success and share best practices with their neighbors to ensure healthier communities for all.

Image credit: Pixabay

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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