On a Saturday afternoon in June, over 20 members of faith-based organizations that have participated in Camden Coalition’s Faith in Prevention program conducted a first-hand assessment of their Camden neighborhoods for available resources in healthy eating and active living. They came together through support from the New Jersey Health Communities Network’s funding collaborative to complete a walk audit in the Whitman Park and Parkside neighborhoods. They were looking to document a wide range of conditions — among them, sidewalks that were broken, cracked, or obstructed; speeding or reckless drivers; and the availability of recreational spaces or classes and corner stores stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. 

As I flipped through the audit packets completed by the volunteers, I frequently found no data for such categories as “recreational spaces,” “healthy food accessible at mini markets,” and “available fitness activities.” In contrast, the “barriers to walkability” section had an average of three boxes checked off in each audit packet. 

I made another telling observation: 100% of the spaces marked as open recreational areas were vacant lots. A few patches of grass where a house once stood made up one recreational space. We found no playground equipment, picnic tables, or courts to encourage recreational activity. We didn’t need a trained researcher to draw a core finding from our preliminary data: Both Camden neighborhoods lack the conditions and resources to make healthy eating and active living possible for residents.

This month, leaders from the six community organizations participating in the community assessment reconvened to begin reviewing the full results of the walk audit and the surveys they conducted with residents they encountered during their audit. They will then make recommendations for how to use the remaining funds we received from the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids to make improvements to the very blocks they walked. The community leaders may decide to add equipment to these vacant lots, repave walking paths, offer fitness activities to neighborhood residents, or make other changes. 

No one is in a better position to assess neighborhood conditions, interpret the data, and recommend changes to a community than the residents themselves. While our Faith in Prevention program supports policy, systems, and environmental changes that encourage a healthy lifestyle within congregations, this community assessment acknowledges that in order to sustain healthy living, changes need to extend beyond the four walls of a faith-based institution. Through collaborating with neighborhood stakeholders, we hope to broaden the impact of our Faith in Prevention program and attract the attention of city officials as partners in creating a healthy environment for Camden residents.

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