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Collaborations Between Healthcare, Schools, and Community Organizations Can Help Families


Healthcare organizations can help improve community health by promoting the mental and physical health of children.

  • Partnerships with schools and community-based organizations can help. They can ask parents what they would like to see in their schools to improve their children’s health.
  • One health system in Southern California partnered with Feeding San Diego to distribute fresh produce and other healthy food to area farmworkers and their families.
  • When designing a program, a health system should consider its population’s social determinants of health and barriers, such as food deserts, transportation problems, and access to behavioral health services.

Population health organizations are focusing on promoting children’s mental and physical health through programs that include families’ input and expand into the community and schools. For example, one healthcare organization is helping a school district start a fitness class for students.

“We met with a school district, and they had a family saying they wanted a fitness class. They asked us if we could brainstorm some ideas,” says Cheryl McMahen, MPA, director of community engagement at TrueCare in San Marcos, CA.

A natural collaboration would involve a local YMCA or fitness center, the healthcare organization, and the school district. “Or, this could be something that might require a grant opportunity,” McMahen says. “These are the things we need to consider whenever a request is made, or an idea is sent out there.”

This could spin off into a discounted or free fitness class available to students after school, or it could be included in an after-school curriculum or class.

The idea is to hear what families need and find a collaboration that can help them meet their health and wellness goals. Not all ideas will result in a program or partnership, but it is important to listen to schools and other partners, McMahen notes.

“Schools are engaged and lively and open to partnership and collaboration because of the day-to-day struggle with their families,” McMahen says. “Some of these partnerships have been through our own volition and wanting to identify opportunities. Other times, it’s from requests that come from the school. Some of the schools created a needs assessment and sent it out to their families to ask what type of resources they’d like to have on campus and what types of health education they’re looking for.”

Collaborations often include working with food banks because so many children and families live in food deserts, lacking fresh fruit, vegetables, and other quality nutrition.

“We have a partnership with Feeding San Diego, a branch of Feeding America,” McMahen explains. “We receive food from them and facilitate food distribution with volunteers and staff members.”

For example, the partnership provides Ag Grab Bags, prepacked food that is delivered to agriculture nursery farmworkers twice a month. “Seventy [percent] to 75% of the food we receive is fresh produce,” she adds. “This evolved into public community food distribution. The food comes from Feeding San Diego, and we get the bags where they need to go.”

The partnership enables the organization to improve food access for a marginalized population of families that often do not have time or the ability to visit a grocery store. “We have partnerships with agricultural nurseries who sign up for food distribution. We pre-bag and pack their food, and [it is] picked up by a company, organization, or individuals who can take 100 bags, 30 bags,” McMahen explains. “We embrace that partnership with them, and that’s completely unique to us.”

Bringing healthy food to people who need it saves families money and can contribute to a healthier population. “One of the things we have to consider in healthcare is external factors,” McMahen says. “Social determinants of health and social factors that impact health include nutrition, food, transportation, and housing.”

Case managers and healthcare leaders also should consider families’ finances as an underlying factor. Low-income patients may have to choose between paying for food or their medication. “We want to mitigate that as much as we possibly can,” she says. “Providing this [food] resource for our community is one way we can.”

It is important to stay flexible and open to new ideas of how the healthcare organization can collaborate with community resources.

“We think about when and how we can be better at identifying opportunities to bring more people to the table and addressing higher needs with what we’re doing,” McMahen says. “I love our community and am passionate about it. Many of our staff, including myself, are from these service cities. We grew up here and understand their struggles.”