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Health Equity Stories

Aquaponics brings sustainable healthy options and jobs to Atlanta food desert

On any given summer day in Atlanta, a sell-out crowd of about 41,000 fans can come to SunTrust Park and watch the Braves play the great American pastime:  baseball. 

But sadly, that same stadium could be filled to capacity 12 times over by the 500,000 children living in Atlanta’s more than 35 food deserts:  areas where residents don’t have ease of access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods -- and may lack transportation to spots where healthier options are readily available.

Enter aquaponics—a way to grow produce in water, using sustainable methods, while creating jobs and educating young people about science and nutrition.

“Why this is so unique and so different in our community is because right now we do not have this in our community…we don’t have sustainable growth,” said Dr. A’Lon Holliday, Sr. VP, Magnanimous LLC, an Atlanta EmPOWERED to Serve Ambassador.

Ryan Dunn created Aquaponics for Kids “an urban farming program using an aquaponics greenhouse to educate children about aquaponics in the classroom and the importance of nutrients for healthy gardening and healthy living,” according to Dunn’s website.

Dunn was inspired to promote such urban farming—and create the aquaponics greenhouse at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA in Atlanta--after realizing local children were mainly subsisting on sugary foods.

 “This gives an opportunity to healthy living and a healthy way of thinking, a healthy way of developing our communities and our families,” said Holliday.

Food Deserts

Decreasing food waste, increasing food access

When Maria Rose Belding was 14, she saw expired food being discarded – while a line of hungry people waited to be fed in Philadelphia. The moment sparked her mission to minimize food waste and decrease hunger.  

In college, Belding founded the MEANS Database, a nonprofit technology company that connects soup kitchens and homeless shelters with fresh food that would otherwise go to waste.

“MEANS was started with the belief it should be easy for those with excess food to share it with those in need,” according to its website. 

The need for programs like MEANS is critical -- the US throws away about a third of its food supplies every day--that’s 133 billion pounds of food annually. But getting usable food to communities in need can be challenging.

“Most of our food is going to agencies less than two miles away in the same low-income communities, but the agencies have no way to transport it,” said Belding.

MEANS received a $20,000 grant in 2017 from the American Heart Association’s first annual EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator.™ MEANS used the grant to partner with Food Connect in Philadelphia to close the transportation gap. 

Belding said the Accelerator offered an important opportunity for underrepresented entrepreneurs to get an idea off the ground.

“No one knows a community better than a community knows itself,” she said. “Competitions like this put the advocacy philosophy of ‘nothing for us without us’ into practice.”

Los Angeles housing pilot program leverages community and resources

A middle-aged woman living in Los Angeles experiences Heart Failure. She’s treated to guidelines at a local hospital—and, she gets better.

There’s just one problem:  she’s homeless. Discharge means returning to life on the streets where achieving compliance with a regimen of recommended medication, diet, and exercise can be almost impossible. 

As partners in a pilot program, the American Heart Association, local organizations already tackling the needs of L.A.’s homeless and area hospitals are teaming to serve as a relentless force for heart health among homeless patients. 

By 2021, we hope to have a two-pronged approach in place that will address the needs of homeless people with heart disease in hospital, and when they return to communities.  

Our Quality Improvement team is focused on health outcomes of the homeless population in hospital settings, while our Community Impact Team is collaborating with housing programs, community clinics, and recuperative care facilities to provide health support and develop reinforcing activities targeted directly at the homeless population.

We know we can’t solve this issue quickly, nor on our own. Our goal is to develop relationships with long-standing organizations who have extensive experience with the homeless population, then utilize our expertise to improve upon heart health. 

The pilot is being implemented in three phases, including deepening hospital and community partnerships, obtaining critical funding, and working with community experts to support existing programs – or create new ones together – that will give L.A.’s “homeless and heart-patient” population the best opportunities to live longer in good health. 

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