On August 10, I paused next to one of the giant mounds of dirt dumped early in the morning just steps from St. John’s Well Child and Family Center’s flagship health center on 58th Street in the heart of South Los Angeles and surveyed the scene.
The entire block was abuzz with more than 100 residents, St. John’s patients and staff and volunteers from Enrich LA and the LA Community Garden Council picking up trash, cutting, sawing and nailing garden boxes together, moving them into place on the parkways down the entire block and shoveling dirt into them. Volunteers crisscrossed the street with wheelbarrows and watering cans, dodging kids who lined up to plant tomatoes and peppers, rosemary and aloe, petunias and more.
It was the first dig-in we initiated to create edible gardens on city-owned parkways—and it won’t be the last. It’s the newest tool we’re using to impact disease in the communities our network of health centers serve because impacting disease before it becomes acute or preventing it altogether is what medicine should be all about.
Residents in St. John’s South Los Angeles service area struggle with grave public health and socioeconomic challenges. A majority live in poverty, 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese, only 11 percent of adults eat the daily recommended amount of fruit and vegetables, and less than one third of children and adults get the respective amount of recommended weekly exercise. The South Los Angeles landscape is also plagued by an over abundance of fast food outlets, corner liquor stores, and empty lots – leaving residents with little to no healthy food options in a city that is renowned for its farmers’ markets and fresh produce.
Creating a block-long garden for health along 58th Street is part of a larger St. John’s vision to promote community interaction, increase access to healthy food & nutrition information, and help community members take active roles in managing diseases like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. The garden will serve as a living tool to connect community members to healthy foods that can be grown in their front yards or parkways or larger community garden spaces. It will serve as a learning center for our diabetes patients, who already this week watered and walked up and down the block of new gardens for exercise, pointing out the tiny plants that will soon hold vitamin-rich tomatoes.
Helping patients dig in gardens isn’t the only innovative approach we take to health at St. John’s. We also identify and treat children sickened by slum housing conditions (and help get their housing fixed), we provide nutrition counseling and healthy cooking classes, we connect kids and families to green spaces and physical activities, we roll our mobile unit out to meet workers where they are to root out workplace injuries and illness.
We’re going to keep doing all of this work, but keep in mind there is no government agency and few private foundations that pay for prevention programs like ours. We struggle and scrape together the funds to get them started and maintain them with partner organizations. But imagine if the American healthcare system was fully engaged in supporting activities that prevented disease on the front end, rather than treating it after it developed on the back end. Think about how much happier, healthier and productive Americans would be.
So in our big neighborhood of South Los Angeles, St. John’s is trying to turn the traditional medical system on its head. We lead by example and collect the data we can to show how effective these prevention programs are. But how can you show the impact of farms on your street? How can you show a disease was prevented when a person never gets the disease in the first place?
We’ll see, and maybe one day we’ll figure out how to measure it. But in the meantime, we’ll keep those Zumba classes rocking, those urban farms tilling, and those nutritional classes humming. Because we believe in more than healthcare services. We believe in health!