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Tapping a Neighborhood’s Potential for Healthy Living

The most effective neighborhood change begins and ends with the people who live there. Citing LISC’s Communities for Healthy Food NYC program as a model, former director of programs Colleen Flynn outlines the importance of working with organizations rooted in the community in order to empower residents, improve health and whip up something nutritious.

The story below was published on The New York Academy of Medicine blog:
Creating Community Programs That Work

What’s the secret to generating lasting, positive change in urban communities? One veteran of NYC non-profits explains how it’s done.

Community development seeks to empower individuals and groups of people with the skills and resources to effect change within their communities. After almost 20 years in this field, it’s clear to me that it’s not about outsiders coming in with big ideas and making decisions for those seeking to improve conditions in their neighborhood, but rather it’s about helping to bring about change that begins and ends with the people who live in that community.

Striving to revitalize underserved neighborhoods through community development is the centerpiece of our work at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) New York City. With partners like Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation (NEBHDCo), we bring resources to low-income communities to improve the quality of life and health of residents, including affordable housing, nutrition education, access to healthy foods, and pathways to better jobs.

Yet, helping New Yorkers live healthier lives requires a lot more than just launching new programs to meet these needs. The most important first step is asking residents, “What challenges and opportunities do you see in your community? How can community-based organizations engage you in designing and carrying out solutions that meet your needs and vision for your community?”

Think about a young mother of three in a low-income community who is up at the crack of dawn to get her kids off to school and day care, before starting a 7 am shift at work. Exhausted after a 12-hour day, she gathers her children and rushes home to put a quick, inexpensive meal on the table. That night when her oldest walks to a friend’s to hang out for the evening, she worries about their safety on the streets at night because of recent events in the neighborhood. She stays up late getting ready for tomorrow, followed by a restless night in bed before she repeats the process all over again.

Now imagine we create access to healthy food without considering whether this woman knows how to cook with that type of food, or whether she has a way to get to the location of the healthy food. If a mother of three is working two jobs and worried about the safety of her children at night, simply giving her fresh fruit and vegetables is not going to change that reality.

To develop effective solutions, we have to understand the residents’ current state with respect to key factors like work, education, and housing. Do they feel safe in their neighborhoods? Do they have access to quality healthcare, healthy food, and safe places to exercise and play? Are they using the public benefits and support available to them? If not, what is in the way?

What Success Looks Like

Successful community development is not about outsiders coming in with big ideas, it’s about tapping into the enormous assets and potential of neighborhood residents themselves.

For example, at the beginning stages of launching LISC NYC’s Communities for Healthy Food NYC program, we worked with four nonprofit organizations with deep roots in their communities to engage residents in mapping healthy food assets in their neighborhoods. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, we partnered with NEBHDCo to map the community’s existing resources to make sure we did not duplicate efforts. With technical assistance from LISC, NEBHDCo conducted a comprehensive community needs assessment and talked with residents about issues like economic stress and their desire to learn more about eating and cooking more nutritious food.

The resulting project aimed to cultivate resident leaders and raise consciousness about food justice issues while offering a choice food pantry, free meals, cooking workshops, opportunities to sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and on-site employment services.

For Amanda*, the program became much more than just a way to help out in a community kitchen. A single mom in her late 30s, she was underemployed and not involved in her community. After participating in the program, she graduated from its Community Chef Workshop, found a new career and better job, and brought along her 13-year-old daughter, Eva, who became one of the youngest and most active program participants.

Practical Solutions

Communities for Healthy Food NYC has now expanded to six, neighborhood-based food programs throughout New York City. It’s a great model of the type of place-based initiatives LISC has created to impact the lives of more than 80,000 city residents.  

LISC NYC is also working closely with the City Department of Health and other organizations as part of the New York Academy of Medicine’s Designing a Strong and Healthy NYC (DASH-NYC) Workgroup to foster partnerships across sectors—ranging from transportation to health care to urban planning.

At LISC, we partner with trusted community-based organizations that listen to community members, give them a voice, bolster existing local efforts, and offer solutions that present people with an opportunity to get involved. Our programs are improving health in struggling communities and helping people stay in their neighborhoods with a growing sense of ownership and pride for the place they call home.

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Colleen Flynn, former Director of Programs
Colleen launched and oversaw Communities for Healthy Food NYC which expands access to affordable, healthy food in economically challenged communities. She also ran the Two Shades of Green program, which integrates green, healthy and cost-effective measures into existing affordable housing rehabilitation and property maintenance.