Editorial: Healthy Hampshire shines welcome light on challenges

Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2015

People living in the residential East Hadley Road neighborhood off Route 116 south of downtown Amherst face challenges in their daily routines that are not part of the lives of many other residents.

Because of inconvenient bus schedules and tricky access to the nearby Norwottuck Rail Trail, a seemingly simple task like getting to stores in Hadley to buy groceries or prescription drugs is daunting for neighborhood residents who don’t own a car.

Those are among the conclusions drawn from a recent survey, “Getting Around Amherst,” that shines a light on health equity issues affecting many of the low-income residents and immigrants living in the neighborhood that includes single family homes and three large apartment complexes — Mill Valley Estates, Southpoint Apartments and The Boulders. An estimated 2,000 people live in about 780 housing units, and many depend on public transportation.

The Amherst Health Department commissioned the Healthy Hampshire program to research the challenges faced by residents and identify possible solutions to improve their access to food, fitness and a healthier lifestyle. Sarah Bankert, coordinator of Healthy Hampshire, said the goal is to provide people living in the East Hadley Road neighborhood with opportunities that many other Amherst residents already enjoy.

“We want to really figure out how to have this neighborhood experience the same level of abundance as others in Amherst,” she explained.

Residents of the neighborhood relying on the PVTA for transportation to Hadley must take a circuitous route through downtown Amherst to a second bus that goes to the malls.

Among those who have experienced the challenges are Shawn and Saphon Prak, who are visually impaired and do not drive. While they and their five children recently moved from Mill Valley Estates to Olympia Oaks, near the University of Massachusetts, Shawn Prak has been familiar with the East Hadley Road neighborhood since he was a teenager.

People who want to bike or walk to stores face the choice of using busy roads with no sidewalks, or taking a popular shortcut to the rail trail — and its access to stores such as Maple Farms Market and Wal-Mart — that involves cutting through a cornfield on private property. While it shortens the trip to and from the malls by four-tenths of a mile, Prak said it can be a “hair-raising” walk at times because of the difficult terrain.

Amherst Health Director Julie Federman said the survey results are helpful because they provide solid data on the challenges faced by many neighborhood residents. More than half of the East Hadley Road residents ride the bus daily, and more than 40 percent rely on it to go grocery shopping. And 60 percent of the people in that neighborhood use the rail trail, with seven in 10 accessing it via the cornfield shortcut.

Those are the kind of neighborhood-specific statistics that Healthy Hampshire produces in its quest “to make sure that we are building communities that support the long-term health of all residents,” according to Bankert. “This means ensuring that everyone is able to obtain healthy, affordable food and have safe and accessible places to get physical activity.”

Healthy Hampshire is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health administered by the City of Northampton. In addition to Amherst, the collaboration includes Belchertown and Williamsburg. Among the initiative’s regional projects is helping smaller markets and convenience stores stock healthier products by providing nutritional information and promotional materials and connecting them with wholesale farmers in the area.

The work of Healthy Hampshire in neighborhoods such as East Hadley Road is useful because it shines a light on obstacles that otherwise would remain invisible. Acting on possible solutions is the next critical step.

To their credit, officials in Amherst already are talking about advocating for improved bus service to the commercial corridor in Hadley, adding a sidewalk on East Hadley Road toward South Pleasant Street and the nearby Groff Park, and perhaps turning the oft-used cornfield shortcut into a formal — and safer — connector to the rail trail. Such improvements would help pave the way to a healthier neighborhood.


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