Seeing the whole picture: Holistic health movements gain traction in the Bay Area

Toki Burke/Courtesy

The Bay Area is home to one of the largest recorded wealth disparities in a concentrated area in the United States. Many Bay Area communities record disproportionate numbers of households making $25,000 or less, designating these households as impoverished while their direct neighbors record average incomes of over $100,000.

Areas such as Oakland, Marin City and parts of San Jose record significantly lower incomes than their surrounding neighborhoods. Because these pockets within the Bay Area have recorded drastically lower incomes than their surrounding areas, community members of Oakland, Marin City and San Jose have statistically higher rates of poor health, maternal death and drug and alcohol dependency.

The high prevalence of health issues within the Bay Area is a direct result of this extreme wealth gap. While reports generated about Bay Area health realities often reveal that the Bay Area has the lowest levels of adult obesity and second lowest levels of diabetes in California, this is a result of averaging health outcomes from upper class communities and the working class communities that they neighbor. When each of the nine counties in the Bay Area are studied, the health results vary drastically.

A report released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that rates of obesity and diabetes were highest in Bay Area counties with large populations of low-income and nonwhite residents. While many healthcare providers acknowledge that the wealth gap within the Bay Area results in unequal access to healthcare between its residents, very few organizations are targeted toward providing the health programs that these communities need.

The high prevalence of health issues within the Bay Area is a direct result of this extreme wealth gap.

There are approximately 150 free clinics that operate within the Bay Area, mainly serving the low income communities of the Bay Area. These models of treatment, however, are focused on one-time service for physical ailments. Because many low-income, nonwhite residents of the Bay Area are often overlooked, there is a need for organizations that operate as more than a free clinic to those who cannot afford medical care. There is a need for a holistic approach toward healing.

In order to truly heal people within the underserved communities of the Bay Area, organizations like Open Source Wellness and Marin City Health and Wellness Center have developed holistic approaches to health that focus on the invigoration of the body through exercise, practicing healthy eating habits and developing a community between disadvantaged residents of the Bay Area.

One organization that actively implements a holistic health practice is the Marin City Health and Wellness Center. Founded in the early 2000s by community members of Marin City, the Center’s goal is to provide the Marin City community with accessible health care.

Marin City is an unincorporated part of Marin County that has a majority low income, predominantly African American population. Prior to the founding of the center, residents of Marin City had to drive or take the bus to San Rafael — a ride that could take up to an hour — in order to access health care. The founders of the Center recognized that Marin City was clearly an underserved population and decided to act.

“From 2011 to 2019, we’ve grown tremendously, we now have a staff of 50 and have multiple sites; one in Marin City, one in San Rafael and we have a free-standing birth center in San Francisco,” said Michaela Moss, the Health Educator for the Marin City Health and Wellness Center.

The expansion of these services came about as it became apparent to the leadership of the Marin City Health and Wellness Center that their center could benefit people throughout the Bay Area. The inequality in health coverage between white and nonwhite communities is immense, specifically seen in the drastically different birth outcomes of white and black women.

“Our freestanding birth center came out of a need to address the difference in birth outcomes between white women and black women throughout the country. (Statistics) reveal that black women die at three times the rate of white women during childbirth,” Moss explained.

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Like many of the programs initiated by the Marin City Health and Wellness Center, the birth center addresses the real needs of its community. The new birth center, however, is not the only program conducted by the Marin City Health and Wellness Center that addresses the issues of low income, racial minority communities within the Bay Area. As Moss put it, many of their programs reflect the needs of the community.

MAT, or Medication Assisted Treatment, is another program held at the Marin City center and provides collective group services to opiod addicts and those with alcohol dependency. Components of the MAT program include discussions on healthy eating habits, cooking tutorials and hiking throughout the Marin Headlands. All of these practices enforce a healthy routine that can aid with recovery.

Another need that the Center has addressed is food accessibility. Marin City is considered a food desert, meaning there is very limited access to affordable, high-quality fresh food — even though it is a city. While many of the areas surrounding Marin City have high-end, organic grocery stores, within the city limits the only access to groceries is at the nearby Target. Additionally, many of the residents of Marin City cannot afford to go to the “boutique” grocery stores in their surrounding neighborhoods.

“As a result, as well as in response to seeing high rates of hypertension and diabetes, we opened a food pharmacy. We offer fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh grains and more to outpatients once a week,” Moss said.

The services provided by the Marin City Health and Wellness Center are indispensable to the community members. While there is little in terms of direct outreach to those who live in Marin City, news about the programs available at the Center travels through word of mouth. Because they are a community based organization, they have a strong community network that refers people to them.

The services provided by the Marin City Health and Wellness Center are indispensable to the community members.

The Marin City Health and Wellness Center works to provide wellness programs that are desperately lacking in their community. In a community that is largely overlooked because of its proximity to wealthy neighborhoods, addressing the struggles of those who live in the area is their top priority.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing equitable health care to all,” said Moss.

Holistic practices similar to those of the Marin City Health and Wellness Center are being implemented slightly closer to Berkeley through the work of Open Source Wellness. Open Source Wellness is a nonprofit, “behavioral pharmacy” that serves the Oakland and Hayward communities. The co-founders of Open Source Wellness, Dr. Elizabeth Markle and Dr. Ben Emmert-Aronson, worked previously as psychologists and observed many troubling practices within the health care community.

“Our co-founders worked in health care and found that doctors were making the same four behavior prescriptions over and over again; to eat healthier, to exercise more, reduce stress and increase social support. Then they would say something like, good luck with that, see you in six months,” explained Open Source Wellness’ Program Manager and Health Coach Monet Levalley-Garcia.

Both Dr. Markle and Dr. Emmert-Aronson understood that, for low income people, fulfilling these behavioral prescriptions was not plausible without outside assistance and guidance.

In response, Open Source Wellness has crafted programming that aims to build a sense of community between its members. Meetings take place once a week, during which participants of its program meet to have a community meal (with nutrition training), exercise together, discuss hardships and support each other.

“We are an experiential delivery service. We do all of the things that the doctors prescribe. We move our bodies in a way that’s fun and impactful, we do mindfulness and stress reduction and we have discussion and learning around all different kinds of health topics,” Levalley-Garcia said.

Those participating in Open Source Wellness’ programs are referred to the nonprofit through their health care provider, a response more constructive than a simple “good luck.” Participants then commit to meeting weekly for three months; however, the model can be adapted depending on each participant’s specific needs.

There is no graduation ceremony from the Open Source Wellness program. Participants are given the care they need as long as they need it. When they are no longer participating in the program activities, they are able to continue working with the program. They can volunteer and transition into a leadership role, allowing former participants to stay active in the communal healing process that Open Source Wellness initiates.

The goal of Open Source Wellness is to expand and bring their model of wellness to other communities that need it.

The programs hosted at Open Source Wellness’ two sites are difficult to grasp because they take such a different approach to health care than most people are accustomed to. Through the building of community and the introduction of easy and fun ways to implement healthy living styles, the “Behavioral Pharmacy” has been very successful in bringing alternative health methods to the Bay Area community.

The goal of Open Source Wellness is to expand and bring their model of wellness to other communities that need it. Recently, the clinic received the Scattergood Innovation Award, an honor which will allow them to take action on some of their long-term development plans.

“We make sure that we’re catering towards our community. Our mission is to be accessible, and to be available and serve the populations that need it the most in terms of income, access and race. We’re breaking down the barriers for marginalized communities to have access to this kind of wellness, to this kind of health community and vitality,” Levalley-Garcia said.

Both the Marin City Health and Wellness Center and Open Source Wellness are responses to the issues present within the Bay Area: concentrated areas of high poverty and low income resulting in lacking access to many forms of health care. In order to remedy the high rates of diabetes and obesity within communities of color in the Bay Area, holistic approaches to wellness have no doubt proven successful — and will hopefully continue to be successful as they gain further traction.

Contact Grace Vogel at [email protected].