More New Orleanians Get Movin’ Thanks to Prevention Research

June 20, 2017|4:16 a.m.| Leslie Erdelack (ASTHO), Naomi Englar (Tulane Prevention Research Center)

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region. Recovery efforts in the aftermath of the storm exposed longstanding disparities between wealthy and low-income residents, including stark differences in access to food, healthcare, and transportation. Tulane University’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) recognized the opportunity to close these gaps by working together with health officials, policymakers, neighborhood ambassadors, businesses, and city planners to rebuild New Orleans with an emphasis on promoting health and well-being for all its residents.

Naomi Englar, communications coordinator at the Tulane PRC, saw firsthand how social and economic conditions can dramatically influence health. “Neighborhood disparities had worsened after the storm and people weren't able to get quality food,” recalls Englar. Founded in 1998 as part of a network of CDC-funded academic research centers, the Tulane PRC has played a central role in promoting active and healthy lifestyles in New Orleans by developing training and communications, building infrastructure through the university, and fostering broad-based community engagement and leadership. The center has a Community Advisory Board consisting of nonprofit organizations, neighborhood groups, regional universities, and state and local government officials. The board meets quarterly to support the center’s progress on research, communications and training activities, and education about policy initiatives.

Improving Food Access

To illustrate the city’s food access problem, the PRC presented research to city officials through the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, a local planning group established with support from the PRC in 2007 to bring together public and private partners to develop a food access policy agenda.

The PRC collected data showing that the city’s poorest areas were without grocery stores and cited local and national studies linking neighborhood food access to better health. Based on the committee’s recommendations, the city established the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, a $14 million financial incentive program to increase healthy food access by providing low-interest and forgivable loans to stores in underserved areas. The Tulane PRC was instrumental in helping committee members look beyond their individual priorities to see a shared policy objective.

Neighborhood Ambassador Program

Partnerships are essential to all PRCs’ work. Across the country, prevention researchers collaborate with communities affected by health disparities by involving them in research and translating promising findings into programs that are responsive to the community’s needs.

In 2011, the Tulane PRC launched a grassroots Neighborhood Ambassador Program to connect neighborhood groups, like churches and community-based organizations, to health-related resources and programs. “We started this group when people were still reeling from Katrina and a lot of the neighborhoods still had work to be done,” says Carolyn Johnson, director of the Tulane PRC. “There were abandoned houses, empty lots, and unsafe playgrounds—diet and physical activity weren’t exactly priorities, so we helped them find the resources they needed to address the priorities they had at that time.” Over the years, the PRC has continued to strengthen relationships with these organizations and provides technical assistance on health-related activities, including walking groups, health fairs, cooking demonstrations, and community gardens.

Working with the New Orleans Health Department and Fit NOLA

The Tulane PRC also works closely with the New Orleans Health Department on the city’s Fit NOLA partnership. The PRC and the Louisiana Public Health Institute provided data when the city health department conducted the state’s first-ever health impact assessment in 2014 to understand residents’ concerns surrounding economic redevelopment and to maximize the public health benefits by working with a new fresh foods market to meet the community’s needs. The PRC is also active with the Louisiana Department of Health through the Louisiana Obesity Commission, a statewide task force to coordinate obesity programs and policies and develop statewide plans for obesity prevention.

Movin’ for LIFE Focuses on Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

In 2014, the Tulane PRC initiated Movin’ for LIFE, its core research project for 2014-2019, to help connect residents in the Ninth Ward to healthy eating and physical activity resources in their communities. Research points to many underlying causes of obesity: prenatal and early life experiences, poverty, genetics, the food and physical activity environments, and lack of sleep, among others. It’s clear there are no unilateral, easy solutions to this widespread public health problem that affects 12.7 million children and more than one-third of adults in the United States.

“We started off slowly and focused on coalition building in the first year because we wanted direct input from the community on the project,” explains Johnson. “The coalition even provided the name, Movin‘ for LIFE (Lasting Improvements for Fitness and Energy).” In the second year, the program expanded its social marketing campaign to include Movin’ for LIFE neighborhood walking maps, an ongoing photovoice project, and community cooking classes.

The Tulane PRC is looking at a set of environmental measures to determine which strategies are most effective in promoting active and healthy lifestyles. “We have protocols for observing places where people go to be physically active as well as for assessing food stores,” says Johnson. “These observations will provide our outcome measurements in the final year to determine if Movin’ for LIFE has contributed to increases in physical activity and healthy weight-related behaviors to address obesity in New Orleans.”

The Tulane PRC plans to incorporate lessons learned from the project in a model toolkit for other state and local jurisdictions.

Read about the Tulane PRC’s prevention research and visit CDC’s Prevention Research Centers website for more PRC tools, resources, and success stories.