By Whitney Buchmann
Community assessments are not new and have varying purposes, but there is always something to be learned from each implementation. It was upon the wisdom of other walk audits that the Camden Coalition and its partnering organizations designed our healthy eating and active living audit. Therefore, it’s our duty to add our learnings to the body of wisdom from which others will draw for future community-lead data collection.
These lessons should first be contextualized by our objectives. The intent of this particular community assessment was to, within one year and among community leaders in Camden, NJ:
- Identify locations or areas of common concern related to healthy eating and active living;
- Develop a plan for how to assess or audit the particular location and topic that we are concerned with;
- Get approval from necessary sources to complete the audit;
- Gather a taskforce to conduct the walk audit which would:
- Choose the date, time, and routes to do the audit, and
- Review how to do an assessment, what to look for, and design necessary tools;
- Conduct the assessment and walk audit while taking photos and notes;
- Gather all feedback and discuss;
- Write up the audit findings;
- List or summarize the recommended improvements based on the assessment or audit findings; and
- Share findings with necessary people to implement recommendations.
BUILD ON EXISTING EFFORTS
One of the first key lessons is to not start from scratch and to anchor to existing efforts. The first way we did this was map the geographic locations of faith-based organizations (FBOs) who had completed our Faith in Prevention program. We knew these institutions already implemented policy, systems, and environmental changes to improve healthy eating and active living within their congregations and were already in relationship with our organization. Based on the density of FBOs in particular neighborhoods, we invited eight FBOs to form a taskforce and partner with us in applying those same Faith in Prevention lessons to their shared environment: Whitman Park and Parkside. This common program experience and location allowed us to easily identify a common area of concern.
Once we identified the location and topic, we reached out to another local partner organization, Parkside Business and Community in Partnership (PBCIP) who had previously developed a Parkside Healthy Eating and Active Living (PHEAL) Action Plan. They agreed that data collection to further refine and update the plan would be helpful. This served as the focus of our first planning meeting to hone in on which areas of healthy eating and active living we would assess.
Finally, before designing the tools that we would use, the taskforce reviewed surveys and walk-audit resources from Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Seattle DPD, and AARP Livable Communities. The taskforce formed small groups to brainstorm and pull formatting ideas, categories, and questions from all of these tools to create two of our own tools. First, a survey that could be given at church food pantries and to individuals encountered on the walk. Second, a walk-audit sheet to be completed for each block walked on the chosen date.
Though the planning of the tools and day of the audit was well thought through, there were some day-of logistics that weren’t anticipated. For example, the volunteers were asked to take photos of the walkability barriers along the way. However, since they were recording on paper and clipboards, linking the digital photos to the exact block the data was collected on was a bit more challenging. Perhaps there are digital tools that exist to make this more intuitive, but we did not have them.
Another thing to consider when conducting a walk-audit is that there are two sides to each block. We had printed enough packets per block, but hadn’t considered one partner would likely walk one side while the other walked the opposite side and each would need their own packet. This would matter most if you are trying to pin-point where a vacant lot was, for example.
In Camden, people are pretty local in their place-based identity. This is a strength when you want people who know the community well to co-design and implement an assessment. However, then it is especially important that there is a full representation of diverse perspectives from those respective communities. If someone walks by the same vacant lot every day, that will be fresh in their mind as the thing to observe. If another person regularly volunteers at a food pantry, their ideas will primarily stem from that experience. Both voices are valid, but if only one of them is in the room when making decisions it can lead to a biased assessment.
For us, this was evident when reviewing the results in order to make recommendations. Throughout the planning process we had at least one person from each organization present. It was more difficult at the end of the summer to find a time in which all members could be present. Therefore, the conversation about the results had fewer perspectives. Even though the data had interesting things to say about vacant lots and walkability, the taskforce focused more on transporting food home from food pantries. This wasn’t a tangent entirely; just disproportionate based on those members’ experiences.
For those planning a community assessment of their own, don’t reinvent the wheel. Make sure to build on existing efforts in your area. Then, don’t just consider what data to collect, consider how you hope to use it so that the method in which you collect it suits your needs. Finally, ensure that you have a diversity of community leaders throughout the process. Thanks to all those that came before us and best of luck to those currently planning. Happy data collecting!
About the Grantee
Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers is a non-profit coalition of Camden healthcare providers, community partners, and advocates, committed to elevating the health of patients facing the most complex medical and social challenges. We share a vision of a transformed healthcare system that ensures every individual receives whole-person care rooted in authentic healing relationships.