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Neighborhoods become ‘Best Babies Zones’ and help infants grow up healthy

News for 10.22.15
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W.K. Kellogg Foundation

When activists petitioned for the rerouting of a freight train that would run through their community, it was about more than noise concerns – it was part of a larger fight to end infant mortality.

Infant mortality may not appear to have anything to do with trains, but the environmental impact they would have – and the inevitable noise and air pollution – would negatively impact the community. Eventually, when it came time to vote, the council made it clear: for the health of their children and all future generations in New Orleans, Louisiana, the freight trains would not be allowed to plow through Mid-City.

The council’s decision was in no small part influenced by the advocacy of people like Kristen Kirksey, who leads Best Babies Zone Hollygrove. Kirksey and her team provided the New Orleans City Council with soil and air samples to show the environmental and health impacts the train would have on their Hollygrove neighborhood located in Mid-City.

“There’s an element of social justice [to BBZ’s work],” Kirksey said.

A holistic, “place-based” effort to give babies the best chance

BBZ Hollygrove is part of a national Best Babies Zone (BBZ) initiative based out of the University of California, Berkeley. BBZ is a collaborative, “place-based” effort to bring together four sectors – health care, early care and education, economic development and community systems – to address the social determinants of health and improve birth outcomes.

“When it comes to reducing infant mortality, we believe that health means more than health care,” said researcher Cheri Pies, who designed and runs BBZ.

The long-term goal of BBZ is to give every baby the best chance in life. BBZ works holistically to improve living conditions and opportunities for all, so that babies are born healthy and into neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, economically vibrant places.

“If a neighborhood is going to become healthier, it needs to have better jobs that provide a living wage,” said Pies. “It needs access to affordable, fresh, nutritious food. It needs an environment free of pollution. And it needs safe places for kids to play and schools where kids can truly grow and learn.”

Unfortunately, in many low-income and communities of color, these needs are not often reality.

Improving the health of everyone improves the health of the individual

The heart of BBZ is reducing racial disparities in premature and low-weight births, and infant mortality, which are affected by the health and well-being of the mother.

“It’s the life course perspective, it’s looking at health from pre-conception [before a mother becomes pregnant],” Kirksey said. “So when babies are born, they are born into a community that is healthier; the mother is healthier and [the babies] have what they need to thrive.”

This means addressing health, education and economic disparities long before a baby is born.

So in Hollygrove, BBZ has partnered with Regents Bank to put on a four-week long financial literacy course. BBZ also works with community partners to hold GED classes for adults who did not graduate high school.

The idea is that by making people more job ready, they will be able to increase their socio-economic status. And greater educational attainment and improved socio-economic status are linked to better overall health for parents and their children.

“We recently had our first person pass her GED,” Kirksey said. “You really have to celebrate those successes, even if it’s just one.”

Engaging the whole community to create change

There are also Best Babies Zones in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in the Castlemont neighborhood of Oakland, California. The programs in each neighborhood look very different, because BBZ is designed to address neighborhoods’ specific needs.

For example, in Castlemont, a local Saturday market was developed to curate support for local entrepreneurs. BBZ even helped small businesses become licensed vendors, and these businesses have since formed an association. Now, the hope is that as local businesses grow they will be able to fill empty storefronts along Castlemont’s main street, improving the neighborhood’s economy and livability.

These three initial zones – Castlemont, Hollygrove and Price Hill – were chosen because each has the resources and the community will to create change. Cheri Pies believes lasting change requires the participation of those who call the neighborhood “home.” BBZ’s role is to serve as a catalyst, helping residents, community partners and local groups build on existing strengths to achieve community transformation.

As Kirksey says: “[BBZ] is really trying to touch on and improve all those conditions that in turn improve health.”