To address emerging health disparities across underserved communities in Houston, the UTHealth School of Public Health has been awarded a $1.1 million grant from the Houston City Council.
The project’s goal is to advance equity, elevate the roles of Community Health Workers (CHWs), and create new workforce development opportunities for CHWs, through the efforts of the Health Equity Collective (HEC). HEC is a network of over 180 member organizations across areas of health care, social services, and academic institutions focused on achieving health equity. UTHealth School of Public Health serves as the home of HEC, linking CHWs, their network of organizations, and the communities that need services.
HEC is co-led by UTHealth School of Public Health faculty from the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences: Shreela Sharma, PhD, professor; and Heidi McPherson, MPH, senior project manager. Both co-leads are part of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living.
“Our initiative as a systems coalition is to align the efforts across health care and community-based organizations to coordinate and improve access to social services for Greater Houston residents,” Sharma said. “This generous grant will help us address issues and thus improve access to better health care for these vulnerable communities.”
Priorities range from measuring the impact of food insecurity on health to researching the lasting effects of the health outcomes of the community. The CHW's role is facilitating project goals by creating an interconnected relationship with the community to promote engagement.
“Funding will strengthen the organizations who are working on a grassroots level and will also bring additional resources to the communities that may have been lacking access to food, transportation, or housing,” said Sharma.
“The work is systems change – improving the systems that grassroots efforts sit in, targeting all of these individual efforts, and providing a more solid foundation for them to build off,” McPherson said.
UTHealth School of Public Health will also sub-contract with the Houston non-profit, Brighter Bites, an evidence-based health promotion program aiming to improve access to fresh produce plus nutrition education for high-risk children and their families in the Greater Houston area. The availability of nutritious foods is correlated to promoting a healthier lifestyle where access plays a crucial role. A 2021 article from the Current Developments in Nutrition journal cites an increase in food insecurity since the COVID–19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects minorities.
“Key barriers to achieving health for all are social drivers including lack of access to basic needs such as food, housing, and healthcare. Through HEC and this funding support, we will strengthen our network of CHWs and establish the means for addressing these barriers,” Sharma said.