What’s the Aetna Foundation Up to Lately With Its Public Health Funding?

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The Aetna Foundation is all about healthy living and the necessary avenues to live healthier, more active lifestyles. You can see why a giant health insurer might focus its philanthropy on this front: Better population health means lower healthcare costs, which saves companies like Aetna money. This corporate funder places a pretty heavy grantmaking emphasis on instilling healthy behaviors in young people and curbing childhood obesity.

To all of those ends, the foundation offers a good deal of support to community organizations through its Cultivating Health Communities Initiative, out of which the foundation awarded over $2 million in grants earlier this fall.

The awards were given to 23 nonprofits around the country whose work aligns with Aetna’s public health goals to “promote better nutrition and physical activity, enhance health equity and advance innovations that enable better health.”

One of the more interesting points of this funding round was foundation President Garth Graham’s statement that Aetna is acutely aware of the fact that “where you live has a profound impact on how you live.” That’s a point we’re hearing more often from cutting-edge private health foundations like Kresge and Robert Wood Johnson, and it’s interesting to see corporate funders making the same point.

People living in low-income neighborhoods often lack access to so-called “full service grocery stores” and farmers markets where they can purchase healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Additionally, healthy foods are generally more expensive than the sugar, fat, and preservative-packed foods that are typically less expensive and readily available in low-income communities. It goes without saying that those with limited food budgets try to stretch their dollars as much as possible.

The Aetna Foundation is addressing these matters by awarding grants to groups such as the Lower Sioux Indian Community to support community gardens and cooking classes tailored specifically to the Sioux culture. As well, the United Way of Central Ohio received a grant to help owners of local corner markets expand their stocks to include healthy food choices. In Virginia, the foundation awarded a grant the Planning Council to bring groups together such as local farmers and child care providers in an effort to set up new healthy food delivery and pick-up systems.

Additional points of interest in this funding round include awards to reduce and prevent cyber-bullying and the promotion of healthy activities like biking and yoga in low-income areas around the country. Other grants support local nutrition classes and initiatives for school-aged children, summer camps, year-round after school programs and career training in nutrition education.

A major through line in the Aetna Foundation’s grantmaking is the support of local organizations that are familiar with the needs of their communities and the best way to go about servicing those needs. Earlier this year, the foundation launched its Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge, with a total of $1.5 million up for grabs to incentivize communities to raise the overall health and well-being of their residents as a whole.

The challenge is focused on small mid-sized cities and the goal is to foster relationships between healthcare organizations and key like-minded players within these communities. This collaboration, the foundation hopes, will allow multiple stakeholders to get involved to come up with cooperative solutions to encourage healthy eating and active living.

Although local giving is a big part of the Aetna Foundation’s grantmaking strategy, it’s not dismissing the power of large national and international groups, which can be change-makers when it comes to addressing another issue of importance for the foundation—equal access to healthcare.