UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three Pennsylvania communities are working to develop youth leadership, enhance local food systems and create healthier populations through a project led by Penn State Extension and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, recently awarded a $65,000 grant to Penn State Extension to help establish the Well Connected Communities program, which is aimed at empowering communities to come together to help their residents be healthier at every stage of life.
The program, a partnership between the foundation and the National 4-H Council, includes 15 land-grant universities across the nation, all focusing on up to three communities within their states.
Penn State Extension is connecting with three underserved communities across Pennsylvania — the city of Aliquippa in Beaver County, the city of Lebanon in Lebanon County, and the Norris Square neighborhood of Philadelphia — to lift the voice of youth while improving health outcomes. Project leader John Byrnes, extension educator based in Philadelphia, pointed out that the three participating communities all have communitywide life-expectancy rates well below the state average.
He noted that the coronavirus crisis only has increased the need for community-building and leadership-development efforts in support of health, wellness and nutrition, especially in underserved communities with high proportions of vulnerable residents.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional strain on Pennsylvania’s local food systems,” Byrnes said. “To counteract this, Well Connected Communities is supplying communities with critical information about emergency food locations, online learning activities for youth, horticulture training opportunities and essential resources for struggling community nonprofit organizations.”
During the past year, educators from Penn State Extension’s Food, Families and Health; 4-H; Horticulture; and Community Vitality teams have contributed staff time to establish local health councils and lay the groundwork for the project in all three communities.
The new funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will allow for Penn State Extension to expand staff capacity for the project, with the goal of providing cross-disciplinary leadership and support around youth development, local food systems, community gardening, community development and nutrition education.
“We want to give the youth in these communities a voice at the table and to enable them to work alongside community members, local public health and nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government entities both to define and impact health-related concerns,” Byrnes said.
“In accordance with the Robert Wood Johnson philosophy, these coalitions also will look at the social determinants of health. So, when we’re talking about health, we’re talking about disease prevention, exercise and good nutrition, but we’re also talking about the impact of joblessness, of poor housing, of environmental issues. And this gives the communities and youth with whom we’re partnering a broad palette to develop potential solutions.”
A major objective of the project is to bring 4-H into communities that may not be aware of the land-grant youth development program, Byrnes explained.
“These communities are urban and very diverse, and they don’t necessarily know about the breadth and depth of 4-H,” he said. “There may be youth programming going on in these areas, but it may not be as organized or have the resources that 4-H can offer. So we’re building those relationships and having conversations with community and volunteer leaders about the strengths of 4-H.”
Byrnes said future Well Connected Communities action plans call for the co-creation of a new 4-H summer program, support for local farmers markets, an early childhood center garden, technical assistance strategies around land-tenure challenges and nutrition education programs for parents and caretakers of school-aged children.
Those interested in learning more about the project can contact Byrnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Chuck Gill, Penn State University