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What Is Health, Really?

When I began my undergraduate career at Sewanee: The University of the South in August 2014, I intended to study health and medicine because of time I spent in the Dominican Republic while volunteering with my old church. I remember being in the hospital and feeling helpless as our group sang gospel music and encouraged patients and their families. Although I was extremely religious at the time, I still felt that we should be doing more to support these people in pain and I wished there was something physical that I could do to help. This pushed me to pursue health and birthed my desire to become a physician. However, reflecting on that time about five years ago, I realize that I had an extremely flawed view of what constituted health. I solely thought of health as physical and one-dimensional: a relationship between an individual, their illness, and their physician. Now, I see health as multidimensional, consisting of not only the aforementioned but also food access, housing, immigration status, mental health, access to care, and one’s identity in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Health is complex and is affected by a plethora of variables and should be treated as such.

My time with New Haven Farms has proven invaluable, and as I approach the end of my time here, I have realized that I have gained so much more than I initially expected. My entire outlook on health has been forever transformed due to hearing so many stories from program participants and community members. I had the pleasure of attending various Connecticut Food Access Group Meetings where I heard about the issues of food security, food access, and its relation to health.

If kids go to bed hungry, how can they be expected to perform well in school? If all a mom has is a couple of dollars to stretch to the end of the month, how can she be expected to buy fresh, healthy food for her children when a pack of ramen is $2?

These, among so many more, were some of the questions posed at these meetings that made me think critically about my viewpoint on health. Access is crucial. Without access, how can one adequately pursue our American right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? However, this access has been restricted by an oppressive criminal justice system, racism, an unlivable minimum wage, and bipartisan politics that oftentimes do not reflect the needs of working class people. In my short seven weeks here, I have heard numerous stories from lower income and working class folks who talk about their struggles to survive, whether due to previous criminal charges preventing employment or multiple minimum wage jobs that still can’t cover the bills. In the wealthiest nation in the world, a developed country that claims equal opportunity for all and preaches to foreign governments to provide better for their own, it is unconscionable that so many people are hungry, in need, and in desolate poverty with little opportunity to grow. We must do better.

Although the United States is supposed to be the land of plenty, our people are not healthy. Not by traditional standards or by the new variables I’ve written about here. Our people are obese, dying of cancer, and many have little access to care. We need to prioritize our health on a national level instead of leaving it to local nonprofits, such as New Haven Farms, to pick up for the slack of the government. We must invest in our health and in supporting the vulnerable working class in order to prevent costly temporary fixes. Until we support those at the bottom, the very foundation of our country, we will continue to be an unhealthy and an unnecessarily struggling nation. I believe we can be better than this, but we must fight for it as we’ve fought for ourselves the entirety of our history.

Cotie San is currently serving as Wellness Program Intern at New Haven Farms. Cotie graduated in May 2018 from Sewanee: The University of the South with a degree in International Studies.

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