VINELAND — Emma Lopez and her team of volunteers distributed two tons of fresh produce from local farms to food pantries last year in efforts to decrease food insecurity and promote healthy eating.
In three weeks of this year’s Vineland Farm to Table program, they’ve distributed three times that amount.
Programs to improve health in Cumberland County, the unhealthiest in the state, are gaining momentum. Cumberland has the highest rates of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, and advocates work to eliminate health disparity.
Recent data show Cumberland County improving its health but not enough to rise from last in the state.
“We’re working really hard in getting partners who are not traditionally working in the health field,” said Lopez, health officer at the Vineland Health Department.
County health rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in March place Cumberland County last in overall health among New Jersey counties.
The report said 20 percent of adult residents smoke, 35 percent are obese and 14 percent of people lack access to healthy and affordable food.
Those numbers are making some experts try harder.
“We’re seeing some improvement here, but other counties are improving, too,” said Megan Sheppard, health officer at the county Department of Health.
A big step toward overcoming barriers specific to Cumberland, such as rural areas; lack of transportation, funding and resources; language and cultural differences; and poverty was to work with other counties in similar situations.
Advocates created the Cumberland-Salem-Gloucester Health and Wellness Alliance. A recent alliance survey found the counties needed improvement in shared areas such as obesity, substance abuse, mental health and diabetes.
“Not one of us can do this by ourselves, especially with limited resources and funding,” Sheppard said last week at the Cumberland County Health Equity Forum, a state-sponsored event to discuss strategies to improve health in communities and among minorities.
Efforts in Cumberland have included the establishment of Live Healthy Vineland and Live Healthy Cumberland County organizations, the Healthy Corner Stores initiative, Lopez’s Farm to Table program, school gardening, public exercise projects and a Knock Out Opioid Abuse campaign.
CompleteCare Health Network began a program last year to increase mammogram screenings among women, especially among minorities that had disproportionately higher rates of breast cancer. The project doubled the number of women who followed up with testing.
Carolyn Heckman, vice president of community relations at Inspira Health Network, said it wasn’t enough for hospitals to just be involved in medical care in order to improve the health of county residents. She said in order for that to happen, experts need to wear different hats.
The hospital in recent years launched programs and initiatives aimed at helping patients with housing, substance abuse, health insurance, food access and other issues not traditionally treated at a hospital, but that affect someone’s health status, Heckman said.
Meanwhile, bad economic news can hamper efforts.
With the closing of General Mills’ Progresso soup plant in Vineland this year, Lopez said, experts lose access to workers and families who had participated in the county’s Healthy Worksite Program, which educated people on healthy habits.
Lopez said the county might not see the fruits of its labor for another several years, but locally, she knows advocates and experts are making a difference.
“Honestly, once you build something, you build it and they will come,” she said.