Posted October 15th 2010 at 11:08 am by
in Food Fever and Fresh Food Access in Philadelphia

What Do We Mean by Healthy Communities?

Reading Terminal Market is a mecca of all food things in the heart of Philadelphia. Source:

I recently realized, perhaps a bit belatedly, that the term “healthy community” is floating around just about everywhere these days.  If you were to look up the phrase, Google would provide 147,000,000 results in a mere 0.32 seconds.  Foundations, government agencies, universities, cities, towns, villages, businesses all want in on this ‘healthy community’ action.

So what does the ubiquitous phrase even mean?   There doesn’t seem to be much consensus amongst users of the term, so I thought I’d do some investigating.  To start, I looked up the definition of each word separately in Merriam-Webster.


1 : enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit : well

2 : evincing health <a healthy complexion>

3 : conducive to health <walk three miles every day…a beastly bore, but healthy — G. S. Patton>

4 a : prosperous, flourishing b : not small or feeble : considerable

Community (it got a bit lengthy here, so some parts have been removed for your sake)

1 : a unified body of individuals: as… b : the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals in a common location d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger e : a group linked by a common policy f : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests

2 : society at large

3 a : joint ownership or participation <community of goods> b : common character : likeness <community of interests> c : social activity : fellowship d : a social state or condition

The 9th Street Italian Market in Philadelphia is filled with informal vendors and shops. Source:

These are two relatively common words, words that I have used for years without any hesitation over their meaning.  Yet, while reading through the list of definitions, I found myself picking up on some details I hadn’t noticed before.  While I usually focus on physical well-being, Merriam-Webster reminds us that the word ‘healthy’ is connected to the idea of economic and political soundness as well.

And when it comes to ‘community,’ Merriam-Webster is all over the map.  One could talk about a community as a physical space, or the people who are connected to the space, or people who share some other non-location-based connection.   Suddenly, it all seemed a bit complicated for me to figure out alone, so I turned to my intrepid survey-takers, the stars of my last post.

“How would you define the term ‘healthy community’?” I asked, and I got a wide range of intriguing answers.

The largest number of responses described neighborhoods that make it possible for residents to be physically healthy: people can access the food necessary for a nutritious diet, they can access quality (affordable) health care, they can access places to play and exercise – parks, bike paths, sidewalks – and it’s actually safe enough to do so.  Then people started adding on layers: a healthy community is one that enables its residents to be healthy, making the notion less about what residents can tangibly get, and more about what a community values and encourages.

There were also people who provided definitions that have little to do with physical health but focus on desirable neighborhoods with amenities like libraries, quality schools, shops, and restaurants.  Many respondents mentioned the social aspects of a community as well, envisioning a healthy community as one where local residents are socially connected, and friends and family can provide support to each other as they pursue a physically, mentally and emotionally healthy lifestyle.

A few of my personal favorite answers were:

– A community that THINKS about health and values it and integrates it into its lifestyle.

– A healthy community must be one on both the supply and demand sides. Requires both the provision of parks, grocery stores, healthy food options, etc and the desire of the residents to patronize these establishments. If demand doesn’t exist, public information campaign should explain the benefits of healthy living.

– A healthy community is a community in which all people have access to the services and conditions that contribute to physical, mental, environmental and economic health (fresh food, parks, health services, transportation, education, jobs, etc)

– A healthy community is just different groups of people that are willing to try new things, and that includes any of the programs here at The Food Trust.

The lovely Rittenhouse Square is a lively mix of Philadelphians, and is constantly full of people, dogs, babies, and during market season, the most amazing collection of heirloom tomatoes I have ever seen. Source:

From all of this, I have been thinking about how I would define a healthy community, and I keep going back to the dual meanings captured by Merriam-Webster.  To me, a healthy community is one that encapsulates both the health of people and place, where people can be physically healthy and live in a neighborhood that is thriving socially and economically.

Is food access critical to the creation of a healthy community?  If it provides people with the ability to eat a more nutritious meal, then yes. If it helps strangers to become neighbors while discussing the beauty of a freshly picked peach, then absolutely.  If it provides jobs, wages and benefits to residents, then I can’t see why not.  If it makes a community more desirable for its residents and more economically viable, then yes.  Increasing levels of food access isn’t a panacea for the problems of broken communities.  But, I do see it as a critical element to consider when engaging in a process of neighborhood revitalization, and I hope to spend some of my career figuring out more ways to do that.  Thanks for reading the series!

Alissa Weiss comes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She is currently a student at the Harvard School of Public Health, but she also gets to sneak in a fair amount of urban planning classes too.

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