Erica sobs raggedly as the impossibly small casket is lowered gently into the dark, cold hole in the ground. Her family is gathered nearby, huddled against the fall chill. Baby Jordan never even made it to his first birthday, joining almost 70 other children who died in Allen County last year.
Erica and Jordan aren't real, but their story is one that is all too familiar to many families as well as those working in the perinatal health services. It may come as a surprise to some, but Allen County has an infant mortality rate of 8.0 (eight out of 1,000) which is on par for some undeveloped countries, not what you would expect in the heartland of the Midwest.
It gets worse, though. Little Jordan isn't the only one at risk here. In America, more than 700 women die each year from pregnancy-related conditions. Two out of three of those deaths are the result of preventable issues. Indiana's maternal mortality rate is twice the national average. If Erica happens to be a woman of color, then her chances of dying increase by three times.
Fort Wayne has a serious issue, compounded by other factors such as lack of access to affordable, high-nutrient foods, or proper early-term health care. Nowhere is this issue more prominent than in the 46806 and 46807 neighborhoods. For far too long, families in these neighborhoods have dealt with circumstances created by the compoundment of several critical factors. Many studies have been conducted around these issues over the years, and the data is clear on the severity of the problem.
Now what? How do we address such a complicated issue?
It starts with information, the will to make a difference and the power to implement initiatives. We have worked for years to collect the relevant information, researched various comparable communities, and started forming networks and collaborations across industries and fields.
We have the tools in hand, and some of the work has already begun. Programs such as HEAL (Healthy Eating, Active Living), a partnership between the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Parkview, have already been implemented in 70+ neighborhoods, organizations and groups. The HEALing Kitchens portion of the program teaches basic knife skills, produce identification and preparation, and proper food safety, among other things. The Food Council, Local Food Network of Northeast Indiana, and the Purdue Extension office collaborate on a number of initiatives aimed to educate and engage the community, such as the Local Food Forum that takes place each March.
The will of the community is present, and it is most notably shown in the most recent election results. We had a record turnout, resulting in historic changes to our City Council and the reelection of our mayor. In his acceptance speech, Mayor Tom Henry acknowledged the health issues of our community and pledged to make them a priority in his coming term.
When you combine all this with a dramatically different City Council, you have the potential for significant energy and resources to be allocated to this issue. We look ahead to a new year, new decade and a new council with renewed energy and confidence. This community is ready to take the necessary steps and put in the work to implement the changes needed. Let's prove that our families and neighborhoods matter just as much as our baseball stadium and downtown development.
Stephanie Henry represents the Food Council of Northeast Indiana.