By Hope Ditto. Social service programs have never been more important than in the past few years. Stuck in a recession we can’t seem to rebound from, people across the country have found themselves in situations they never imagined – many needing to rely on resources they never expected. And all things considered — the foreclosures, the layoffs, the stock market crashes and the big business bankruptcies – it’s no surprise that people need a little extra help these days. Luckily for them, our country has several social service programs in place to lend a helping hand and ease a burden or two when you need it most. Even luckier for them, nonprofit organizations like the Community Action Partnership (CAP) exist to help you navigate this world, which for many was a foreign concept only weeks or months before.

As their website puts it, “The Community Action Partnership is the nonprofit, national membership organization representing the interests of the 1,100 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) across the country that annually help 17 million low-income Americans achieve economic security.” They accomplish this through their CAAs, which offer those in need opportunities to receive job training, housing, food, energy assistance, financial training, daycare and much more, all with the goal of “making America a better place to live.”

Don Mathis

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with our January Man of the Month Don Mathis, the President & CEO of CAP and ask him about some of the issues and campaigns CAP is focusing on in 2011 – particularly those with a health care angle. This is what he had to say.

Question (Q): As you know, our blog focuses primarily on health care issues. So, I was wondering, what is CAP doing to combat the nutrition disparity that exists between the general population and the low-income population?

Don Mathis (DM): CAP is working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to promote their programs to the approximately 1,100 CAAs across the country. These programs deal with all sorts of issues – everything from food deserts (defined by the USDA as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed predominantly of lower income neighborhoods and communities) to summer feeding (for students who, during the school year, receive reduced or free lunches) to the ever-popular fight against childhood obesity.

We are focused on combatting the food desert problem especially. The issue of food deserts has given way to President Obama’s Healthy Foods Initiative, which you may have heard about. Basically, the idea is that we can promote economic development act and farms/farmer coalitions while simultaneously getting rid of food deserts by getting healthy food into areas without it. There is actually a lot of interest in this from all across the board. How it works is we identify areas where food deserts exist – especially areas where it seems like stores are hesitant to open, for whatever reason – and then get federal partners, venture capitalists, co-ops, etc. together to take the risk and open the store. We supplement this with programs that aim at teaching the community to make better choices. The program is in its early phases, but we have already seen a lot of success around the country.

Q: I know you mentioned childhood obesity too – I understand that the Partnership is involved in First Lady Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity initiative. Can you provide some more details about your role in the campaign?

DM: This was another exciting experience for all of us here at CAP. We actually were able to attend Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign kickoff ceremonies, and since then, we have been working to educate people about the dangers of childhood obesity and measures people can take to prevent it. We now have fact sheets and other information about obesity and exercise featured in our CAP monthly newsletters and we have been encouraging our CAAs to distribute additional information and notices to their participants. Also, in the works for 2011 – we put together a presentations with the Cal Ripken Foundation that centers around exercise and sports as a means of obesity prevention so we are currently in the process of trying to get that funded.

Beyond the First Lady’s campaign, our CAAs take ample measure to provide participants – especially children – with healthy food options. Many even operate their own feeding programs. In San Bernadino County, CA, an area approximately the size of Vermont, we have a whopping 900 feeding sites that provide not only food but also information about nutrition and obesity prevention.

Note: Don Mathis participated in the Disruptive Women Breakfast on childhood obesity in May 2010.

Q: As we were discussing before, many people are finding themselves in need of what social services provide for the first time, but navigating the various services/programs can be confusing. What health and nutrition programs have you seen work well for the population your organization serves and how can people find out more about the programs available?

DM: Definitely the program that stands out to me is food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP and disseminated via debit card), which today includes both the food provision and an education component. This education component aims at helping encourage people to make smart food decisions and healthy choices. There is even a pilot program in place called Healthy Incentives offering participants incentives to purchase fruits, vegetables and other “healthful foods.”

Not only is the food stamps/SNAP program probably the best known of any available social service, but it is one of the most widely used. In fact, one in seven Americans receives food stamps. What is more, four out of five African American children will receive food stamps before the age of 18.

Another lesser known program we have also seen a lot of success with is the WIC (Women, Infants, Children program) for pregnant women, new mothers and mothers. It provides supplemental foods, healthcare referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to the age of 5 found to be at nutritional risk. Our CAAs work to enroll qualifying people in all of these programs (SNAP, WIC, etc). In fact, our Centers have the ability to help people enroll in lots of different programs, including Head Start and energy assistance — programs that many may never realize were available otherwise. In fact, CAP partners with over 40 separate organizations, federal, state and local programs.

Q: Shifting gears, obviously one thing that the Affordable Care Act (passed in March 2010 and repealed in the House last week) had a pretty significant impact on was Medicare/Medicaid. Generally, what impact do you think health insurance reform will have on low-income individuals and families like those that CAP serves?

DM: Well, one thing to keep in mind is the budget crisis surrounding the Affordable Care Act, but we’ll save that conversation for once we see what happens in the House/with the repeal.

Obviously, as we all saw last week, people of a certain political persuasion want to gut the bill. One section especially that they mention wanting to eliminate is the prevention section, which allocates $800 million towards preventive care. Of course, preventive care actually saves people a lot of money in the long run, because it prevents ER trips, missed days of school/work, etc. but opponents call it [prevention fund] a slush fund and have already established their intention to gut it [whether through the repeal or a supplementary bill]. CAP plans to see how they can get low-income populations involved in prevention fund, as well as, of course, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and Medicare/Medicaid. As to what will actually happen, that remains to be seen.

Q: Don’t we all feel that way? Haha. Well just one final question then – all of us Disruptive Women are always trying to pay attention to the issues that aren’t getting much attention (the better to disrupt with, my dear). Are there issues around health or nutrition that are often overlooked when it comes to disadvantaged communities? Is there a specific issue you would like to see get more attention?

DM: The biggest challenge is and continues to be the issue of accessibility. Obviously with a national organization like CAP, we serve many different populations, all of which face different issues and different challenges. I always use the example of Camden, New Jersey, which does not have a supermarket, Laundromat or movie theater. Their challenges are different from a rural community that perhaps has a grocery store, but no doctor or hospital within 50 miles. Census data indicates that poverty is moving into the suburbs, and that too will create its own unique populations, cultures and challenges. All of these problems are ongoing and not likely to fade within our lifetimes, but one thing I really hope is that in 2011, we can make significant progress in expanding the healthy food network so that low income neighborhoods and communities gain access to healthy food. Sure, it’s only a start, but it’s a good one.

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