Another Funder That's Looking Beyond the Doctor's Office in a Quest for Better Health

Everyone knows that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of health insurance, but not everyone has the same access to ideal lifestyles full of exercise and a dependable supply of fresh-steamed broccoli. For people who live in communities considered food deserts, or who worry about violent and other environmental stresses, engaging in a healthy lifestyle is extra tough. 

That reality is behind the Aetna Foundation's three-year-old grant program to support community-based nonprofits that work on social determinants of health—like access to fresh fruits and vegetables, places and opportunities for regular physical activity and exercise, and negative behaviors like bullying.

At Inside Philanthropy, we write often about the growing number of funders who are moving "upstream" in their health grantmaking—looking far beyond such traditional concerns as access to insurance coverage and quality medical care. These funders include the biggest foundations in health, like Robert Wood Johnson and Kresge, as well as state-focused health funders like the Colorado Health Foundation, the California Endowment, and NYSHealth. 

The Aetna Foundation is another funder that's keyed into the social determinants of health, as we've reported in the past. As the philanthropic arm of an insurance company, it has a special appreciation of what happens when the underlying causes of poor health go unaddressed—namely, all of society gets hit with higher healthcare costs. 

RelatedWhat's the Aetna Foundation Up to Lately With Its Public Health Funding?

Aetna recently announced a new RFP for the latest cycle of its Cultivating Healthy Communities grant program. The grants are from $50,000 to  $100,000 and come out of the $2 million program.

"This funding addresses the need to improve opportunities for all Americans—regardless of income, education or ethnic background—to take an active role in living healthy lives," says Aetna.

The foundation cited just a few of the nation's many alarming health stats: Thirteen percent of households facing food insecurity, more than 23 million Americans living in so-called rural or urban food deserts. Even the problem of bullying, which might not seem at first glance to be part of the same picture, falls under this program, having been identified as a contributing factor in the risk of depression and other health complaints, and to decreased academic achievement.

Aetna Foundation is inviting applications from community-based nonprofits that address social determinants of health at the local level, adding that successful grantees will focus on measurable markers of healthy living, such as greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, decreased bullying behaviors, improved stress management and increased physical activity. While the problem of food deserts is a particular bane of low-income people, bullying can affect children from any socioeconomic strata.

Since 2014, Aetna’s Cultivating Healthy Communities grant program has awarded more than $11.4 million

Aetna's panoramic statements about health will sound familiar to anyone who's followed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's quest to create a "culture of health" by address everyday social factors—where people live, work, play, etc.—as well as through backing for medical professionals and institutions.

Indications from Washington are that Americans—particularly the poor—may face trouble if they plan to rely on public health insurance. All the more reason to fund measures that can keep people out of the doctor's office in the first place.