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Rutgers receives $10M to improve health inequalities

December 2021. Rutgers launches a new initiative to improve the health and quality of life in disadvantaged communities facing food insecurity, high unemployment, low high school graduation rates, and falling household incomes – funded by a $10 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ( RWJF).

The four-year investment, part of a larger presidential and university-wide commitment to promoting equity in healthcare, will create the Rutgers Equity Alliance for Community Health (REACH), which will join community-based organizations with university researchers, teachers and students. Participants will come together to find ways to improve health outcomes by focusing on social determinants of health and work, where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age.

“The pandemic has definitely exposed the health inequalities that researchers have consistently identified. With the foundation grant, Rutgers will work closely with our communities to find out what is needed at home, at work and in school to improve the health and lives of all residents,” said Jonathan Holloway, President of Rutgers.

Strengthening Rutgers Commitment to NJ

In New Jersey and across the country, COVID-19 exacerbated the health inequalities that exist in underserved, often minority, communities and became a catalyst for Rutgers to lead the new alliance.

REACH is part of a university-wide effort bringing together all universities and medical schools to address health inequalities. In the past six months, the university has received nearly $ 20 million from RWJF, the country’s largest public health philanthropy, for various projects promoting health justice.

“New Jersey is blessed with Rutgers as one of the best universities in the country,” said Richard Besser, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We are delighted to use this scholarship to support the university’s efforts to use its considerable community-based resources to break down structural barriers to good health.”

The focus of REACH will be on putting research into practice and working with residents and community leaders. They will address structural and systemic racism that affects housing, food insecurity, education and employment.

While community-based partnerships with Rutgers already exist in Newark, Camden and New Brunswick, REACH will seek ways to build these connections to deliver sustainable long-term solutions.

REACH Will Expand Current Partnerships

The new alliance will focus on education, employment, access to food, safety, housing and community health.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that people’s overall health outcomes have less to do with what I do as a doctor in my office and more to do with the social determinants of health – where they live, work and play,” said Denise Rodgers, family doctor and Vice Chancellor for Inter-professional Programs at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences. “Although research on social determinants has been done for decades, there is still a huge gap between what we know academically and what happens in many communities. The aim of REACH is to close this gap. ”

This is particularly evident to Black and Hispanic residents who are faced with systemic obstacles and discriminatory structures that affect their physical and mental health and longevity.

Rodgers, who is also a professor of family medicine and community health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and Enobong (Anna) Branch, senior vice president of Justice, will lead the work of the alliance. The Office of the Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs is supporting the effort with an additional $ 1.8 million in presidential funds.

“This is not just another health research project, but [a way] to define sustainable and substantial social commitment that benefits our educational mandate.” said Branch. “Together with our community partners, we can implement systemic changes.”

Food Insecurity and More to Be Addressed

Branch and Rodgers say the goal is to change the way universities work with community partners to develop policies and interventions that will create real change in communities dealing with poor quality housing, homelessness, unsafe neighborhoods, underserved schools, food insecurity and lack of access to health care.

Rutgers’ long-term goal is to work with underserved communities across the state.  In New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, where the university campus is located, the participants will identify gaps in understanding the causes and solutions of inequalities.  Then they will address them by developing interventions that combine research with lived experience.

“This new university-wide initiative … doesn’t happen in one discipline or on campus,” said Henry Turner, vice president of academic initiatives. “The university recognizes that we need experts from not just medical schools, but also from education, history, sociology, criminal justice, Caribbean and Latino studies, urban planning and many other areas of the university for this collaborative collaboration to work.”

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