The environmental, economic, and social factors that influence our health are commonly referred to as social determinants of health. These factors are beyond our personal control and are experienced uniquely and often unequally, shaping health care encounters, and contributing to health inequities. Achieving and maintaining good health is the consequence of these life factors and influences.

In 2022, the Johnson Center’s Community Data and Research Lab and Just Solutions released the Health Equity in Grand Rapids’ “Neighborhoods of Focus” Social Determinants of Health Report with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This report investigated the social determinants of health disparities in 17 census tracts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, deemed “Neighborhoods of Focus” (NOF) following research that located the areas with higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and housing cost burden and lower rates of educational attainment than elsewhere in the city. The results provided a baseline of health factors and conditions for children and families in the NOF prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about how the report’s data are being used for community conversations and action aimed at moving away from disparity and toward equitable opportunity and health, we spoke with Melanie Wong, M.A., RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

How does Groundwork promote health and racial equity?

Melanie Wong: In Grand Rapids, Groundwork’s role in promoting health and racial equity is focused on education and expansion of 10 Cents a Meal, a state-funded program that matches what schools, early care and education centers, and other organizations participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition programs spend on Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes with grants matching up to 10 cents per meal. For 2022-2023, the statewide program has a budget of $9.3 million to support purchases of Michigan-grown produce that help improve daily nutrition and eating habits for children in school and childcare settings and build Michigan’s local food economy.

The program supports health equity by helping food service directors purchase and serve more fresh, minimally processed Michigan-grown produce instead of canned. 10 Cents a Meal also has educational and marketing components that aim to promote Michigan-grown produce and food, nutrition, and agricultural education opportunities. Grantees have a wide variety of plans that range from hanging promotional posters that feature local fruits and vegetables to hosting taste tests highlighting different fruits, vegetables, or legumes. Whatever the educational activities offered, the goal is to help expand children’s view of food and where it comes from, while supporting the formation of healthy eating habits.

The Social Determinants of Health report highlighted that access to grocery stores in some parts of the NOF is limited. Providing meals with fruits and vegetables for children in school or childcare can be a source of crucial nutrients to support their health, development, and learning readiness. The financial incentive provided to 10 Cents a Meal grantees can also help offset food costs for food service directors interested in trying different varieties of produce to expose children to new flavors, textures, and tastes as a learning opportunity.

Read the full article about promoting health equity by Melyssa Tsai O’Brien at the Johnson Center.