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Making Philadelphia Healthier – One Neighborhood at a Time

By Mayor Michael A. Nutter
October 12, 2009

Regardless of where the debate on national health reform winds up, cities across the nation will need to continue their efforts to be healthy, vibrant places for people to live learn, work, and play. In Philadelphia, we’ve recognized for quite a while that health is not the same as health care.

It’s great to have good doctors and hospitals available to you. But if your neighborhood is crime-ridden and polluted, your streets are filled with fast-food joints but lacking in fresh-food markets, and your home is infested with pests, you’re not living in a healthy community. And odds are you’re not going to be very healthy, either.

I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of health to communities. But about a year ago, research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America drove that point home to me even more forcefully.

Our city had the pleasure of hosting the Commission at the second of their three field hearings across the country. At the hearing, researchers mapped out the disparities in average life expectancy that exist along the Philadelphia mass transit line. In Central Philadelphia, the average life expectancy is 72.3 years. But people living a short rail ride away can expect to lead longer lives. Traveling from the 30th Street Station for seven stops, a mere five-mile ride to Camden City Station (NJ), increases life expectancy by 3.5 years. When you travel from the 30th Street Station to the Bryn Mawr Station in Montgomery County, an 8.4 mile ride, it turns out that residents can expect lives 6.5 years longer than residents of Central Philadelphia.

Those numbers told me that where we live dramatically affects our health – for better or worse. That information reinforced my commitment to do everything in my power to ensure that Philadelphians live longer, healthier lives.

In Philadelphia, we are focused on expanding access to nutritious food for people in low-income neighborhoods. In the late 1990s, a national study showed that Philadelphia had the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita of major cities in the nation. A report by a group called the Food Trust showed that poor supermarket access in Philadelphia is linked to a high incidence of diet-related conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, in many low-income neighborhoods.

The Food Trust’s research led to the establishment of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), a partnership between government and industry that has worked tirelessly – and effectively – to address lack of access to fresh and healthy foods. The Initiative has resulted in 69 supermarket projects in various stages throughout the state, including 23 in Philadelphia. One of them, a beautiful, 70,000'square-foot ShopRite in West Philadelphia, has done wonders not only in bringing a wide range of fresh and nutritious foods to this low-income, multi-cultural neighborhood, but also in serving residents’ dietary preferences and needs and in encouraging other businesses to come back to the area.

In fact, over the years, Philadelphia has developed an extensive healthy food network that includes not only fresh food stores, but community gardens, model urban farms, farmers’ markets, and school nutrition programs. The School District of Philadelphia has one of the strongest beverage and snack policies in the country. You won’t find any soda in our school vending machines, or candy on school premises.

There’s more – much more – that we have done and continue to do to make Philadelphia a healthy community. These include a citywide smoking ban in public places, a highly successful single'stream recycling program, a lead abatement initiative, and our “Green Plan” to expand open and green space in Philadelphia.

We can build healthier, sustainable cities that offer healthy choices to residents and remove obstacles to good health. So I encourage my fellow mayors and municipal leaders across the country to provide leadership to promote greater opportunities for Americans to live long, healthy and productive lives.

For more information contact Dr. Don Schwartz, Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunities at 215-686-9000.