By Jayne O'Donnell
Dr. Michael Ehmann (left) with Larry Cohen, the founder of the Prevention Institute.
First came the liquor store and then the fried fish and chicken carry-out. “Where’s the check cashing place?” I half-joked to the teenagers of the Urban Health Media Project in the back seats. “Or the church and the laundromat,” Reggie Payne answered, not missing a beat.
“Every community is very similar to one another,” said Payne, a high school junior. “It’s a pattern they got too used to, I guess.”
It was week two of the Urban Health Media Project and my car was filled with some of our Washington, D.C. students, headed to meet the Baltimore contingent at Morgan State University. As we drove through Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood with Larry Cohen, the founder of the Prevention Institute, our fledgling reporters saw some of the social determinants of this community’s poor health.
The life expectancy in this zip code is up to 15 years shorter than it is in Fells Point, three miles away.
“The speaker from the Prevention Institute talked to us about how in different communities there wasn’t food security,” Washington, D.C. junior Karla Lozano said later. “When I got home, I started to look at my community and other people’s communities and it kind of opened up my eyes to say, ‘Wow, it really is like this.’”
Lozano says she also discussed it with her mother when she got home. Karla’s mother, Rosa, is a nursing home aide who immigrated from El Salvador more than 20 years ago and speaks minimal English. Karla plays on her high school’s softball team, is in a robotics club, a design group and one called Let’s Be Real that advocates healthy relationships.
Freshman Aliya Kaufman-Daniel lives in D.C., but visits her grandparents often in affluent McLean, Va., where she too once lived.
“The quality of where they live is really nice,” says Kaufman-Daniel. “There is only one McDonald’s and there’s all these really healthy restaurants and grocery stores for them.”
Indeed, there are four salad carry outs and three grocery stores in a two-mile radius in McLean. The life expectancy is two years longer than even Baltimore’s tony Federal Hill, which is on par with Fell’s Point.
Near her mother’s home in northeast Washington, junior Ashanea Parker says she has the following places to buy food: Denny’s, McDonald’s, 7-11, Popeye’s and Dunkin Donuts.
“It’s just all this unhealthy food,” says Parker.
Where her father lives in Prince George’s County, Md., Parker says there is “a lot of unhealthy food,” but at least there’s a grocery store in walking distance. It has “lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and yogurt,” she says and then pauses. “Is yogurt healthy?”
When it doesn’t have too much sugar, we discussed, but that isn’t the only problem. As Payne pointed out: “Healthy stuff is expensive.”
“Salads cost,” he added. “A cheeseburger is like a dollar. It hurts my heart.”
After she got in my car after our first session, Lozano took out her phone and started typing. She asked three times how to spell, “Sharfstein.” She was emailing the teacher who recommended her for the program to tell him what she had just learned from our speaker, physician Joshua Sharfstein, a former Baltimore health commissioner and Maryland secretary of health.
Sharfstein, who did his pediatric residency in Boston, captivated the students with stories of young patients whose asthma symptoms worsened in their unhealthy homes. One child’s home was infested with cockroaches. Three siblings in another family were affected by a defective space heater that was used because the heat had been turned off. Cigarette smoke coming from another apartment through a hole in a wall exacerbated another child’s symptoms. In each case, the hospital worked with landlords or legal services groups to make the apartments safer and healthier.
As powerful as those stories were, however, Parker was most struck by Sharfstein’s “humanity.”
“You can actually feel what he said,” Parker said later. “You knew that his experiences with patients were real and touched his heart.”
A few of our 19 students had already done a fair amount of reporting and broadcasting, either through their D.C. charter school, Richard Wright School for Journalism and Media Arts, or Baltimore City Public Schools’ Student Media Team. Others have a steeper learning curve.
For everyone, we’re working on simple declarative sentences and basic questions reporters need to ask, like, “How do you spell John?” But we’re all realizing together that sometimes the answers to big, important questions are made up of little things we overlook in our busy lives. Like that the fresh food at the store by that fried fish and chicken carry-out was limited to two bananas and several onions. Yet our communities and their members are paying the price, physically and financially, for those oversights.
That sums up what Dr. Reed Tuckson and I set out to change with the Urban Health Media Project. We’re already well on our way.