ATLANTIC CITY — On a sunny morning in September, Laura Engelmann and her staff at AtlantiCare’s Health Plex on Atlantic Avenue prepared a slew of fruits and vegetables to be given out as part of a regular “pop-up market.”
These markets, which last year served nearly 7,000 patients and community members, have a dual purpose: providing fresh fruits and vegetables to an population that has limited access to them and helping to increase the health of the residents here.
“I don’t think that there are many patients that we encounter that don’t want to not be healthy,” said Engelmann, community health and wellness manager for AtlantiCare.
Atlantic City’s residents suffer from high rates of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, and they also live in what is considered a “food desert.” Because what you eat matters, creating avenues to healthy food options is a critical part of increasing access to food in general, experts said.
Inside Atlantic City’s 48 blocks, health organizations like AtlantiCare and Southern Jersey Family Medical Center are offering programs that go beyond treatment to educate patients.
“Would you make a lifestyle adjustment if you thought that what you were doing was OK every day? Would you even think to consider looking at alternative options if you thought that what you consume every day was already healthy?” said Destiny Wood, director of women’s health services for Southern Jersey Family Medical Center (SJFMC).
The nonprofit health organization, which has two offices in Atlantic City, offers services for anyone regardless of income or insurance coverage.
Wood said that 37% of their patients in the city are considered obese — having a body mass index of 50 or higher. In addition, they have 579 patients who are diabetic and 1,163 who have hypertension.
To combat those conditions, Wood said SJFMC has care coordination teams that help meet patients “where they are,” not just physically, but both mentally and economically, too.
“Then from there we help the patients in getting the appropriate resources they need,” she said, whether that be a meal plan, follow up visits, referrals to Atlantic City Women, Infant, Children Program or the county department of family and community development, cooking classes or fresh food through a partnership with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
“You can’t just focus on the disease process. When we talk about healthier living and a healthier lifestyle, food is the No. 1 source of that, so if you’re not able to access the right things, I just feel like the health of our city will always be on the decline,” Wood said. “A lot of the patients who come in, they don’t realize that the things they are eating are unhealthy. I feel like when you know better you do better.”
Solutions to the problem can be found in many places, but education is paramount. Take Jersey City, where Mayor Steve Fulop said that his city faces a lot of issues regarding food access and health, similar to Atlantic City.
“If you think about obesity issues, if you think about diabetes, if you think about life expectancy, it all has to down with what you put into your body. And a lot of communities in places like Jersey City just don’t have access to the same quality foods, so trying our best to solve that and educate the public is important,” Fulop said.
He said residents need to understand not only what they are eating, but how to best shop for the healthier items, which can sometimes seem more costly.
“You’ve got to educate people on what makes sense to buy. Those things are all education and we’ve tried to push that,” he said.
At AtlantiCare, the food access programs extend beyond the pop-up markets. The hospital also has a pantry where patients can pick up bags of healthy ingredients, as well as a summer meal program for families with children under the age of 18 to eat and learn. More than 613 individuals visited the pantry in 2018, and AtlantiCare served 2,412 meals (1,538 to children and 875 to adults) to members of the 183 families who registered for the summer lunch program.
“I think that when you’re faced with not knowing what a product is you’re not going to use it, you’re not going to buy it,” Engelmann said. “Sometimes education is going to be what leads them to trying it when they get home.”