The Lead

In Philadelphia, big gains in public health happen in grocery stores — not a doctor’s office

By: - April 2, 2019 5:35 pm

When it comes to improving the health of an entire community, it takes a lot more than just medical insurance and proximity to doctors.

Rep. Joanna McClinton, the youngest woman to be elected chair of the House Democratic Caucus, knows that firsthand.

Growing up in the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood that she now serves as a lawmaker, McClinton was struck by how many world-class medical centers were close to her home.

In spite of that fact, she said Tuesday, life expectancies and other health indicators remain stubbornly poor in her largely minority district.

Data shows that Philadelphia residents have access to fewer hospital beds and primary care physicians than the average Pennsylvanian, even though the city is home to renowned medical centers at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The city also has a lower life expectancy than the rest of Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, McClinton appeared before a room of nonprofit professionals and community health leaders at the Harrisburg Hilton to discuss the reasons for that disparity: an array of environmental factors, known as “social health determinants,” that harm people’s health.

Everything from the walkability of a neighborhood to its levels of violence can influence a person’s health and life expectancy, said Patti MacRae, executive director of the Hartford, Connecticut-based Aetna Foundation.

These factors are all taken into consideration in annual rankings from the Aetna Foundation and U.S. News & World Report, which last week released its list of the healthiest communities in the America.

One of the most important determinants of health is access to nutritious food. Representatives from U.S. News said Tuesday that access to a large grocery store can have the same health benefits as seeing a physician for a yearly physical.

On that front, Philadelphia has some progress to celebrate.

Yael Lehman, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust, said that Philadelphia had one of the lowest numbers of grocery stores in the nation for a city of its size 20 years ago.

Today, Philadelphia is ranked one of the best counties in Pennsylvania for its grocery store access.

Source: Aetna/US World News Report data.
Source: Aetna/US World News Report data.

Lehman attributes that change to a statewide program Pennsylvania lawmakers created in 2004. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative got a $30 million appropriation to offer loans, grants, and favorable financing to entrepreneurs who wanted to create grocery stores in neighborhoods with limited fresh food options.

By the time the program ran through its budget in 2010, it had helped create 88 new grocery stores across Pennsylvania, including 31 in Philadelphia, according to PlanPhilly.

Lehman said the program has been transformational for food deserts across the city, giving thousands of Philadelphians new access to fresh and healthy food options.

Combined with other nutrition initiatives in Philadelphia, Lehman said that the presence of bigger grocery stores likely played a role in reducing childhood obesity in the city.

McClinton has noticed a change in her Southwest Philly neighborhood, where, she says, you can’t walk a few hundred feet without passing multiple fast food stores.

A new Shop Rite grocery store has offered her constituents healthy alternatives to Philly cheesesteaks and french fries, she said.

Food may not be a panacea, but as Teresa Miller, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, put it Tuesday, “we know that healthy food can be the medicine people need.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.