By Wendy Spencer
Our nation is more health-conscious and health-aware than ever, but for many there are still obstacles – an untreated disease, obesity, or lack of healthy food – that prevent them from living their lives to the fullest. That needs to change, and our AmeriCorps members are working to make that happen every day.
You may live in a community where you don’t have to worry about finding fresh foods, making sure your kids get enough exercise, or battling untreated health issues – yet many of our fellow Americans do. We have AmeriCorps members across the nation who provide much-needed services to underserved areas that help our citizens improve their health through a three-pronged approach of assistance, prevention, and intervention.
For us to succeed, this plan has to begin early in life. Even with the fantastic news that came out recently about declining obesity rates among our children, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. First Lady Michelle Obama has been an inspiration to us all through her Let’s Move! initiative, and we support this effort as well as other programs that get our young people off the couch and on their feet.
Diet is just as important as exercise, but 23.5 million Americans (including 6.5 million children) in urban and rural areas live in “food deserts.” This means there is no ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Thankfully, many are helping to make fresh vegetables as accessible as a fast-food burger.
Our AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA members are serving with organizations like FoodCorps and other groups that are educating children about healthy eating and creating community gardens that help them understand the journey our food makes from the farm to the table. Some members have established gleaning programs to help recover food from gardens and farms that might go to waste while developing plans that help replicate this effort in other communities.
And while many Americans continue their struggle to recover from the recent recession, we’ve seen countless examples of AmeriCorps members making a difference to improve food security. They’re serving at food banks and establishing backpack programs that ensure children have enough to eat after school ends when food is in short supply at home.
Breaking Down Barriers to Access
Sometimes, though, being healthy depends on dealing with issues that arise along the way. Connecting people to resources that help them fill out the right forms for benefits, train volunteers to help in emergencies, or link those coping with diseases such as HIV and AIDS with education and counseling services can make all the difference in the world. And AmeriCorps members are fulfilling those needs.
Underserved areas in rural and urban communities have long turned to health centers where they often encounter our AmeriCorps members serving in the Community HealthCorps who connect them to health care and information that saves lives. Not only that, many of these Corps members use their service as a springboard to future careers in health care.
Also, AmeriCorps is there to train volunteers who respond to emergencies, like our members serving with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps who provide volunteers with the tools they need to help when they arrive at the scene of a disaster.
One of the greatest things about national service is that all of our AmeriCorps members play a role in building the connections that create stronger communities – whether they are directly involved in health-related service or not. Each year they recruit millions of volunteers wherever they serve, and we know from our research that volunteers are generally happier and healthier than their neighbors who don’t.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is a national priority. Part of living the good life means having a healthy one. I applaud our AmeriCorps members for their quest to ensure that everyone has the chance to enjoy life and live it more fully – and thank them for all they do to make that possible.
Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. For more information about AmeriCorps’ 20th Anniversary celebration, visit the AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary portal.