When the doctor and the grocer team up to heal a community
An innovative Brockton partnership is serving as national example
AN INSIDIOUS RELATIONSHIP between poverty, access to healthy food and poor health is eating away at America’s low-income communities. It’s happening across the country, and is present every day in economically challenged neighborhoods across Massachusetts.
Sections of Brockton, 30 miles south of Boston, offer far too many examples of this phenomenon. Life expectancies can vary by a decade or more in neighborhoods just a few blocks apart, with income as the demarcation line. The blame lies everywhere, from dilapidated housing to violent crime to high levels of stress and poor nutrition.
But Brockton is also now home to a pioneering alliance determined to remedy the alarming state of the city’s public health—by making quality, affordable health care and healthy food easily obtainable in a single location.
Vicente’s Tropical Supermarket, a local, family-owned business, and the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, a trusted community clinic, have entered into an innovative partnership to open new branches right next to each other. This union will create up to 200 jobs and has transformed a group of derelict buildings that dragged down the surrounding area for years. But it does far more than clean up a neglected commercial corner.
Nearly one in four residents in Brockton lives below the poverty level, and the area has high rates of nutrition-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension that dwarf the averages in less challenged communities. Places to buy healthy food are few and far between—and such purchases are often considered too costly. Comprehensive primary care services have also been out of reach for many.
These patterns are typical of low-income, job-starved neighborhoods across the country—and experience tells us that improving access only solves part of the problem. In Brockton, leaders from the clinic and Vicente’s knew they needed to get creative to have a deeper impact. So while elements of their message are simple—for example, that eating fruits and vegetables every day can help to reduce chronic diseases—the approach goes well beyond the limits of the doctor’s office or the checkout lines.
Health center clinicians will write “veggie scripts” to offer patients a customized diet of fresh produce and other foods that promote heart health and weight reduction. They’ll encourage patients to enroll in free nutrition and cooking classes, using an on-site demonstration kitchen that the store and health center operate.
Shoppers also get guided tours of the supermarket, to learn about the store’s nutrition labels and how to use flavorful substitutes for ingredients in traditional dishes popular among Brockton’s many Cape Verdean and Caribbean residents. The partners are also developing incentives to keep the food affordable, like a rewards program that lets customers earn points they can redeem for groceries if they make healthier choices—switching from high-sugar products to vegetables, for example.
Getting this effort off the ground has been a long and complex process. It required public, private, and community organizations to step out of their traditional silos and craft innovative funding tools—culminating in $22 million invested to bring these two projects to fruition. And it relies on the collective will of institutions grounded in the community, with a strong commitment to Brockton.
Financing for both the grocery store and the health center was supported by New Markets Tax Credits, which stimulate private-sector investments in businesses located in low-income communities. In addition, financing for Vicente’s was supported by grant funding through the Healthy Food Financing Initiative at the US Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The United States spends $200 billion on medical interventions for preventable, nutrition-related diseases every year, and that figure is ballooning. To stem the devastating drain on our economy and improve the health of our communities, we must invest nationally in strategies like the one pioneered in Brockton.Michael Rubinger is president and CEO of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the nation’s largest community development nonprofit. Bob Van Meter is the executive director of LISC’s Boston-area office.