Our Stories: Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance

Addressing a Major Social Determinant of Health: Homelessness

In Massachusetts, one of the most alarming challenges to better population health is the rising rate of homelessness. The state has the second highest rate in the nation, having increased by a staggering 30 percent from 2007 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA) is a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to eliminating homelessness in Massachusetts by focusing its energy and resources on using evidence-based best practices, innovative program design and rigorous evaluation to demonstrate that providing permanent housing with supportive services is in the best interest of homeless individuals, government and society at large.

United Health Foundation collaborated with MHSA to launch a new program in 2016 called Hospital to Housing. This initiative is aimed at identifying and housing adults experiencing homelessness who have serious mental illness and a history of frequent behavioral health hospitalizations. The Foundation has awarded a grant of $1.7 million to MHSA to support local organizations on the front lines of this effort and fund hiring, training and support for five community health workers dedicated to identifying Medicaid members who are experiencing homelessness and are eligible for participation in the program. The community health workers assist individuals with access to permanent housing, behavioral health and primary care, and other resources. They also provide support to formerly homeless individuals who have already been placed into housing. The program's goals include reducing hospitalizations and improving the overall health of participants.

Joe Finn

Massachusetts employees packed welcome home baskets for people who now have access to permanent housing.

Joe Finn, executive director, Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Our Stories: 4-H

Food Smart Strategies Empower Young People to Combat Obesity

Approximately 60 percent of overweight teens go on to become overweight adults, putting them at greater risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. To help teens and their families to develop healthier nutrition habits, UnitedHealthcare and National 4-H Council partner to offer the Food Smart Families Program.

Food Smart Families targets older elementary students and teens in high-poverty areas because of the correlation between food insecurity (not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food) and obesity. The program includes both hands-on educational programming and community engagement events that allow students to share what they've learned with family and friends.

In Mississippi, where 40 percent of children are overweight or obese, Food Smart Families is delivered by 4-H educators from the Alcorn State University 4-H Youth Development program, who train local young people as teen educators and role models. Since launch, the program has reached more than 1,700 students in rural counties across the state.

Valerie Wright

Valerie Wright, UnitedHealthcare, speaks to a group of 4th and 5th graders from Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., during the kick-off of the 4-H Food Smart Families program. (Photo Credit: Amanda Patterson)

Manola Erby, youth specialist for Alcorn State University Extension Program, says Food Smart Families focuses on nutrition, cooking and shopping on a budget. One of the most popular activities, according to Erby, involves setting up a model store and giving each student a specific amount of money to buy everything on their shopping list.

"The goal is to connect our lessons on nutrition and healthy lifestyles to other skills the students are learning at the time," she said. "For example, we help the kids use their math and reading skills to read nutrition labels and shop for the best deals."

The curriculum is offered as a six-week program built into the school day and as a two-week cooking camp. During the summer cooking camp, students learn to plan healthy meals and make a wide range of recipes, from breakfast parfaits to chicken chili to grilled turkey burgers. "I was worried the boys might not be interested in cooking, but they were really into it, especially the grilling unit," said Erby.

The 4-H Food Smart Families program is changing family behavior. After taking part in the curriculum, 94 percent say their family has prepared healthier foods, 93 percent encourage their families to eat meals together, and 91 percent know what makes up a balanced diet.

In 2016, Food Smart Families targeted Mississippi and seven other states and reached more than 43,000 youth and family members since launch in 2015.