The Boston Foundation
June 18, 2015
While many indicators of health and wellness are steady or rising, a focus on five key priorities will be necessary if the state wants to improve public health and cut health-care spending, the authors of a new Healthy People/Healthy Economy Initiative report told more than 225 people at a Boston Foundation forum on June 16.
“We believe a culture of health requires honing in on some key issues,” said Allison F. Bauer, the Foundation’s director of Health and Wellness and a co-author of the report, titled Five Year Review and Five Priorities for the Future. The report identifies key areas that have the potential to significantly improve public health in the Commonwealth: early childhood, youth physical activity, access to healthy food, transportation and smart growth and a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. It also reviews the state’s progress, or lack of progress, on health-related indicators since 2011.
Keynote speaker Christina Economos, a national expert in the area of nutrition and obesity, reviewed the alarming growth in childhood obesity. “About one-third of American children weigh too much and one in five is obese,” she said. “The situation is much worse in low-income areas with concentrations of black or Latino residents. We have stark disparities by race/ethnicity, income level and geography. And in underserved communities, 40 to 50 percent of kids are overweight or obese.”
Economos, an Associate Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University, led a three-year study called “Shape Up Somerville,” which demonstrated the feasibility of reducing excess weight gain in children through multiple leverage points and led to a 15-year initiative for the city of Somerville. Now she is leading a national initiative called ChildObesity180.
During a panel discussion, led by Mary Jo Meisner, Boston Foundation Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs, experts praised the report as an important road map for future policy. “We have a sick-care system, but what we don’t have is a well-care system,” said State Senator Jason M. Lewis, the chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health. He noted that the state’s new Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund makes $60 million available for public health initiatives over four years, while total spending on health care in the state is $60 billion annually.
Winton Pitcoff, project manager of the Massachusetts statewide food system planning process, reminded the audience that food policy is social policy. “How we raise, grow, distribute and market our food has a profound effect on who gets to eat it and that has an effect on health,” he explained. Rebekah Gewirtz, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said: “If Massachusetts were a nation, we’d be the fourth richest nation on earth, yet our economic inequality is on par with Mississippi. We must address these disparities to have a system that works, in which can control the costs, and most importantly, a community in which everyone can be well.”
The head of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, André Leroux, noted that “one thing we can do is create more walkable communities and make sure we’re connecting them with the MBTA.”
In closing remarks, Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan said that the Foundation feels validated in its decision several years ago to shift its focus from “access to health care” to “wellness and prevention” and emphasized that the Foundation now puts a “health lens” on everything it does. “We are proud of our history in helping to launch hospitals, community health care centers and other organizations focused on health care, but because of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Initiative, we have greater understanding and capacity when it comes to health and wellness, and we’ve got to take full advantage of that.”