Invest Health: A Collaborative Journey

by Melissa Adamson
Peoria City/County Health Department

Peoria’s Invest Health initiative seeks to improve health outcomes in the community.

In 2016, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Reinvestment Fund awarded planning grants to 50 midsized cities across the U.S. The City of Peoria was chosen to build a team to explore leveraging financial and community resources to address the intersection of the built environment and health outcomes.

The Peoria team—a cross-sector collaboration which has included the City of Peoria Community Development Department and Innovation Team, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, Illinois Central College, OSF HealthCare, Peoria Public Schools and Peoria City/County Health Department, along with other community partners—began by looking at transforming Peoria’s vacant or abandoned lots into assets to improve health.

Developing the Concept
After reviewing the data, our team narrowed its focus to the south side of Peoria. The south side is a population-dense area of the city with significant disparities in health outcomes that are not only affected by traditional access to healthcare, but also by many social determinants. Due to many complex factors, including decades of disinvestment, the 61605 zip code in particular has higher concentrations of poverty and unemployment, lower educational attainment, fewer family and social supports, and less community safety compared to other parts of the city and county. With fewer resources and limited access to full-service retail grocery stores, many residents are also food-insecure and receive SNAP and WIC benefits to help them meet their family’s nutritional needs.

Initially, the team considered creating an urban agriculture corridor by redeveloping vacant lots; however, we quickly realized that scaling such a project would be challenging. Further analysis of the data and engagement with community residents identified that lack of access to, and education about, healthy eating was a significant barrier to improving health factors such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and poor self-reported health days.

Growing healthy produce alone would be insufficient to impact health outcomes. So, the team began to hone in on creating a multifunctional space that could serve as a community gathering spot or hub of activities where residents could come together to learn about healthy eating, develop job skills, create micro-enterprise opportunities and shop for groceries. To proceed with this initiative, a robust, multi-pronged solution was needed.

Connecting with other key stakeholders working in the food system/food access space in Peoria, and building from examples in other communities, the idea of a learning kitchen and food hub took root. From medical providers interested in implementing a “food is medicine” curriculum, to leveraging the Combined Sewer Overflow work, to supporting agriculture apprentice programs, the team identified many options and benefits of a multi-use space. Co-benefits for the community would include job training and skill development in the culinary arts and horticulture fields for an area where the unemployment rate is higher than 30 percent.

Location, location, location. With the conversion of old warehouses to mixed-use residential and commercial projects, the edge of the Warehouse District was identified as an ideal place to draw both residents of the targeted community and attract business interests from this burgeoning area. While the population of the Warehouse District (primarily young and single) does not suffer from the same negative health outcomes as our target areas, they could benefit from access to healthy produce and education on how to prepare healthy meals. Bringing together very different communities in the same location—to learn together and from each other—is a uniquely unexpected and intriguing aspect of the Peoria Invest Health project.

Strength Through Partnerships
The Peoria team recently received additional funding to collaborate with other Invest Health teams on projects that would support our continued learning journey. We will be participating in two short-term projects to further explore and help propel our ideas forward.

The first is a site visit to a successful fresh food hub model. A team of community stakeholders from Peoria; Portland, Maine; and Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia will be assembling in New Orleans to take a deep dive into the operations of The ReFresh Project—a community development initiative that has revitalized a historic section of the city. The information and learning gained will help us understand the funding needed to support our own project, the expected challenges and barriers that will need to be addressed, and sustainability options.

The second funded partnership is with our regional neighbor, the Bloomington Invest Health team. Each team identified a gap in its ability to implement complex, multi-functional development projects. While each city has Community Development Corporations (CDCs) which successfully develop single-family housing, neither currently has a nonprofit developer working on larger-scale, mixed-use projects grounded in improving health outcomes. To this end, the two teams will be hosting an event that draws on local, regional and national expertise to help our region accomplish the following:

  • Develop a regional Community Development Corporation or network of CDCs;
  • Strengthen the capacity of local CDCs to leverage resources to develop larger-scale, mixed-use projects;
  • Understand the characteristics that make for a successful development corporation, such as grassroots leadership, community buy-in and support, and diverse funding sources; and
  • Assess capacity and interest in such a venture.

The two partnerships will strengthen the Peoria Invest Health team as we move forward in our project to renovate and fit out a learning kitchen and food hub. A pop-up demonstration is planned later this year to draw attention and boost interest in the project. Our hope is to excite the community about what is possible by having them visit a space and visualize renderings that show how the built environment can be transformed to serve the needs of many different audiences and, in turn, impact health outcomes. We invite your participation. iBi

Melissa Adamson, MPH, is Director of Community Health Policy & Planning for the Peoria City/County Health Department.

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