How to reach and improve the health care of rural New Jerseyans

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly was among the awardees of the New Jersey health commissioner recognized for ‘extraordinary efforts’ in improving the health of folks who live in rural areas.

“The mayor managed to turn a $10,000 dollar grant in to a Healthy Food Express bus,” said NJ Dept. of Health Commissioner, Shereef Elnahal.

The health commissioner climbed aboard a bus parked outside of New Jersey’s second Rural Health Symposium at Cumberland Community College in Vineland for a tour.

Kelly founded and heads the Gateway Community Action Partnership. It stocks its bus with fruits and vegetables from its five acre Mill Creek Urban Farm in Bridgeton and donations from local farmers and delivers the produce, cooked meals and books to folks in South Jersey. The organization is also planning to build a second greenhouse.

“It’s a passion of mine. And also statistics show that Cumberland County especially Cumberland County is the most, I hate to say it, unhealthy county in the state of New Jersey. And we have transportation issues here,” said Kelly.

Mayor Kelly says this Healthy Food Express serves about 1,000 clients right now in South Jersey with major plans to expand this summer.

“We’re teaching especially our younger generation how to eat right,” explained Kelly.

“We see the same thing with mobile medical units with bringing care to where people are,” said Elnahal.

The health department says more than 700,000 New Jerseyans live in rural areas and it’s going to take innovative approaches to serve them and transient farm workers.

Elnahal continued, “Telemedicine is really effective in getting to rural communities if they have connection to broadband. So that’s something that we really want to address, working with broadband providers to see what we can do to extend access to that. I’ve seen in the VA that it’s a really effective way to get care to veterans in rural communities who have that access.”

The commissioner says he’s looking for partners and best practices in reducing disparities in health outcomes and suicide rates worse in rural New Jersey than in other areas.

One suggestion: better nutrition.

The Public Good Projects urges consumers to opt for water instead of sugary drinks and says its campaign will sour some sweet tooth’s over the next four months.

“When something like that starts to pop up we do expect to see some push back. But we are sure that our work in the community and ensuring that community is aware of the negative health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages will encourage the community to be supportive of such a policy,” said Orville Morales, community campaign manager at The Public Goods Projects.

Symposium partner, the New Jersey Primary Care Association says outreach is improving, but there’s a long way to go with disparities.

Kelly says disparities such as money are significant, “impoverished communities in South Jersey receive 37 percent less state aid than communities in Central or North Jersey.”

“I think it really comes down to folks getting around a table and saying how can we fix these solutions together and not always starting out as how can we throw more money at it,” said Jillian Hudspeth, president and CEO at the New Jersey Primary Care Association.

Hudspeth continues that, “commitment, dedication and a willingness to solve the problem,” are key to coming up with a remedy for reaching rural New Jersey’s medical and health needs.