When Sarah Baron tells her students at Bakersfield College about the poor health outcomes in Kern County, their eyes glaze over.
Many have spent their lives here. They’ve heard the litany of health issues before. They know Kern leads the state when it comes to rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy, that few are untouched by asthma and valley fever, and that the majority of residents are overweight or obese, often suffering or succumbing from the associated risks, including stroke and coronary heart disease.
But when Baron, a public health sciences professor, tells her students that they don’t have to accept those outcomes as norms, they begin to perk up. They get excited.
“They’re tired hearing about how bad things are. They tune out,” Baron said. “When I say, ‘you can make a difference,’ their eyes light up.”
So for the second year in a row, Baron is taking advantage of that enthusiasm by hosting an event that brings together students, community leaders, techies and problem-solvers for three days and challenging them to not only identify a local public health challenge, but to develop a way to address it. She calls it a Hackathon.
Students and attendees will hear from panels of community organizers, government officials, victim advocates, public health officials and media who will discuss topics including human trafficking, STDs and air quality. (Full disclosure: Bakersfield Californian Health Reporter Harold Pierce is presenting a workshop at the conference on the role of journalism and community engagement in public health).
Everyone in the community — not just BC students — are invited.
“If they want to come, they can. This is their community, and asking them to be part of the change and the difference is empowering. That’s what makes public health exciting — you empower people,” Baron said.
Last year, students grouped together with a focus on developing apps that would address a broad range of health topics. This year, the focus has been narrowed to topics that deal with social justice in health, Baron said.
The Hackathon will address this central idea: why are some parts of Kern County better off than others, and how can areas left behind be raised up?
“We’ve honed in and found what’s relevant,” Baron said.
Neighborhoods devoid of stores that sell nutritious fruits and vegetables, areas that lack of clean drinking water and places with limited health-access are all examples of social injustices, which could lead to geographic health inequities.
When it comes to the intersection of technology and public health, BC Associate Professor of Information Technology Eddie Rangel imagines a world of sensors.
“We use these little devices to keep track of our steps to gauge our health … why can’t we get a little sensor out in the fields to detect whether there’s pesticide overspray, connect that to Twitter and and tweet out when oversprays are detected?” Rangel said, enthused about the possibility of mitigating the effects of pollution.
Baron envisions something similar for valley fever, a respiratory disease caused by a microscopic fungal spore that, when inhaled, causes the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working on developing an air sensor that can detect the fungal spore in the air. If that could be paired with a mobile alert that is issued to everyone in high-risk areas during poor air quality days, the state could see fewer cases, Baron said.
Rangel spent this year working on an app with a team of students that was dreamed up at last year’s Hackathon for Building Healthy Communities, a group that, in partnership with The California Endowment, was launched to transform areas devastated by health inequities.
The social media app connects Building Healthy Communities members and alerts them to issues of interest to their neighborhoods, Rangel said. His team will be presenting the beta version of the app during this year’s Hackathon.
Mataalofa Hubbard, a Bakersfield College public health student, said she’s excited to dig into the issues leading to health inequities, but that she’ll be focusing on one during the Hackathon that has impacted her community directly: a grocery store gap.
In Hubbard’s east Bakersfield neighborhood off Oswell Street near Brundage Lane, there’s few options for a nutritious meal. There’s a few fast food options, and as far as grocery stores, just one Walmart Neighborhood Center that Hubbard said is a little expensive.
“We really have no grocery stores around here,” Hubbard said. “We tend to have more fast food restaurants and go there because that’s all we have. It’s a lack of grocery stores throughout the whole east side.”
She envisions a project that would shed light on the issue and perhaps help government identify areas where subsidies could be doled out to grocery stores willing to set up shop in underserved areas. Or short of that, a partnership with grocers to deliver nutritious items to low-income residents who don’t have transportation.
Having more options is critical in the fight to decrease the county’s high rates of obesity and diabetes, Hubbard said.
“It’s because we have nothing healthy to eat out here,” Hubbard said. “If we did, it could be life-changing.”