NORTHAMPTON — Cooley Dickinson Health Care has received $555,555 in funding from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission’s Moving Massachusetts Upstream (MassUP) investment program to develop a Hampshire County Food Policy Council. MassUP supports partnerships between healthcare providers and community organizations to enable sustainable improvements in community health and health equity.
As the named healthcare provider, Cooley Dickinson will partner with three local agencies — the Collaborative for Educational Services (lead partner), the Hilltown Community Health Center, and the Hilltown Community Development Corp. — to improve regional food insecurity and address a systemic lack of access to healthy food.
“We are inspired by what this funding will enable us to do to improve the lives of local residents at risk for food insecurity,” said Cooley Dickinson President and CEO Joanne Marqusee. “The creation of a Hampshire County Food Policy Council with a coalition of partners that have worked for years together to advance community food security in Hampshire County — and the comprehensive, county-wide strategic plan we will jointly develop — will help us address food insecurity, which is one of the key social determinants of health.”
Caitlin Marquis, Healthy Hampshire coordinator of the Collaborative of Educational Services, noted that she and her team are overjoyed to receive funding from the MassUP program. “When we read the RFP, we felt like it was written for us. We have had the goal of establishing an inclusive, county-wide food-policy council for three years, and it feels like the MassUP funding is tailor-made to support that goal.”
Marquis added that the funding will “provide opportunities for residents experiencing food insecurity to assume leadership positions” as part of the new council.
Jeff Harness, Cooley Dickinson’s director of Community Health and Government Relations, said Cooley Dickinson and each of the three partner agencies have longstanding relationships that have focused on impacting the social determinants of health for people living in Hampshire County.
During Cooley Dickinson’s 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), the lack of transportation and healthy food were identified as high-priority social determinants of health. According to the CHNA, “healthy eating and physical exercise are important habits to create and maintain to prevent poor health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, and depression, to name a few.”
However, opportunities for healthy eating are inequitably distributed in Hampshire County. For example, the Hampshire & Hampden County Food Access Map created by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission shows there are no supermarkets within a 20-minute drive of anyone living in the hilltowns. In addition, 10 census blocks in Hampshire County are USDA-designated food deserts. These census blocks contain roughly 50,000 residents, or approximately one-third of the county’s population.
“This work is an extension of other initiatives that have been seeded over the years, including those addressing health disparities that impact people living in low-income housing and in rural areas,” Harness said.
In order to impact these social determinants of health, he explained, the Hampshire County Food Policy Council will “provide the backbone support to promote organizational alignment and strategic direction among organizations and individuals in Hampshire County that influence or are affected by food systems.”
Initial activities will be based on a 2017 Food Access Plan and may include collective advocacy for policy change, developing farmers’ markets in underserved areas, establishing resident-governed community gardening infrastructure in food-insecure communities, and community organizing in affordable-housing complexes to improve connections to food access. Specific projects will be determined by the Food Policy Council.