About Healthy CUNY

The Healthy CUNY Initiative:
An invitation to join a campaign to make CUNY the healthiest urban university in the nation

By Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health
City University of New York School of Public Health at Hunter College

This report describes the Healthy CUNY Initiative, answers some questions about its goals and activities and invites your participation in planning the future of the Healthy CUNY Initiative (HCI).

What is the Healthy CUNY Initiative?

The HCI is a campaign designed by CUNY students, faculty and staff to make CUNY the healthiest urban university in the United States by 2016—five years from now. HCI seeks to ensure that students leave CUNY healthier and better able to protect their future health than when they entered. Acknowledging the strong connection between educational achievement and health, HCI seeks to reduce the physical, psychological and family-related health barriers that block academic success and graduation. It also works to create CUNY environments and policies that make healthy choices easy choices. Finally, HCI helps CUNY students, faculty and staff to contribute to the well-being of New York City as a whole by contributing its teaching, research and service to promoting health and reducing socioeconomic, racial/ethnic and other inequalities in health among city residents.

What has the Healthy CUNY Initiative accomplished to date?

HCI grows out of work that has been carried out at CUNY for decades. In the past five years, the following activities set the stage for the HCI's next phase:

  • From 2007 to 2010, the CUNY Campaign Against Diabetes led educational activities, self-management workshops for people with diabetes, training programs for student health advocates and advocacy efforts to create healthier food and physical activity options at CUNY.
  • In January 2011, following the recommendations of the CUNY Tobacco Policy Advisory Committee that were based on extensive consultation with many CUNY constituencies, the CUNY Board of trustees approved a new university policy that will make CUNY a tobacco free campus by September 2012. CUNY is the largest university in the nation to institute a tobacco-free policy. In the next year, the Healthy CUNY Initiative will encourage smokers to get help to quit smoking , educate the CUNY community about the new policy and provide training on the policy and its implementation for wellness center, public safety and other CUNY units.
  • In May 2011, HCI initiated the CUNY Campaign for Healthy Food (CUNY CHeF), a program designed to improve healthy food choices in CUNY cafeterias, vending machines and meetings; educate CUNY about diet-related health conditions; reduce consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages and increase opportunities for physical activity on CUNY campuses

Box 1 Results of a Spring 2010 Survey of CUNY Undergraduates

  • Almost one in five students (19%) in the sample met the criteria for depression.
  • About half (49.9%) of the respondents reported that some psychological symptoms associated with depression made it difficult for them to meet the demands of daily living such as work, taking care of things at home, or getting along with other people.
  • Students were also asked to what extent they experienced various problems. The most common psychological, social or interpersonal problems that students reported were stress (reported by 57. 2%), finances (49.6%), relationship difficulties (30%), anxiety (26.4%), and depression (23.1%). More than two in five CUNY students (43.5%) reported experiencing three or more of these problems in the last year. More than three-quarters of the students experiencing these problems indicated that this problem had an impact on their academic progress.
  • Despite the prevalence of these problems, few CUNY students reported getting help:
  • Only 7.2% of students reported using the services of a food pantry or other food assistance program in the last 12 months.
  • Only 6.4% of students reported currently receiving food stamps (i.e., SNAP benefits) even though 18% thought they were eligible.
  • More than 90% of the students reporting depressive symptoms did not report any visits to campus counseling.

Why does CUNY need a health initiative?

In some ways, young adults and college students are among the healthiest population group. They are less vulnerable than young children and older people, less impulsive and at risk than younger adolescents and less burdened by work, family and stress than middle-aged adults. However, recent research suggests that young adults face a variety of health threats that jeopardize their current and especially their future health. In young adulthood, lifetime dietary, physical activity, tobacco and alcohol, health care and other behaviors become established , either increasing or decreasing the risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found that young adults age 18 to 29 are the least likely to have health insurance, making it more difficult for them to obtain the preventive health care that can reduce future illness. Young adulthood is also the time that many people enter longer term sexual relationships and consider parenting, raising a number of health issues. For many CUNY students these health problems are exacerbated by poverty and the stress of supporting children or parents, maintaining employment and keeping up with school. Today, the economic crisis, high unemployment rates and sharp cuts in city, state and federal safety net programs makes these problems even worse.

Data from HCI studies of CUNY students, faculty and staff provide further evidence of problems:

  • 37% of a sample of 1,400 undergraduate students at 3 CUNY campuses were overweight or obese, putting them at risk of obesity-related chronic diseases. More than a quarter reported getting no exercise in the last week.
  • 21% reported that they drink more than 49 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages in the average week and almost 30% reported buying food at campus vending machines in a typical week, food sources linked with high-calorie, low nutrient obesogenic diets.
  • Surveys and focus groups with a sample of CUNY faculty and staff show that more than 10% reported they had diabetes, 16% had someone with diabetes in their household and almost half said they had inadequate time to exercise while on campus. The single largest health concern of CUNY faculty and staff was losing weight.
  • Surveys of 18 CUNY cafeterias found that unhealthy food was generally more available and less expensive than healthier food. (see What's For Lunch at CUNY? <pdf>)

What makes CUNY well suited to make contributions in health?

CUNY is the nation's largest and most diverse urban public university. Serving more than 262,000 degree-credit students and 273,000 continuing and professional education students, CUNY educates more teachers, nurses, public health professionals, and social workers for New York City than any other institution. Its faculty include nationally recognized scholars and many focus their research on urban populations and problems. With 23 campuses and about 40,000 faculty and staff, CUNY touches the lives of millions of New Yorkers. Its students, faculty and staff reflect the diversity of New York City-- and what the United States as a whole will look like in coming decades. Given that its students have successfully enrolled in a university, they are the success stories of urban America, young and not-so-young people who have experienced hardship, poverty and discrimination yet persevered to reach university. By considering its students, faculty and staff as bridges to the city as a whole, CUNY has the potential to make important contributions to improving the health of New York City.

What kinds of activities can HCI carry out in the coming years?

The Initiative is an open process in which students, faculty and staff from throughout CUNY plan and carry out activities, sometimes with the support of HCI staff, sometimes on their own. We suggest a few possible goals and activities for the coming years here; we also invite your suggestions for other activities.

  • Improve the quality and healthfulness of food served at CUNY and lower the price of healthier food
  • Post calorie content of all food served in CUNY cafeterias and in vending machines
  • Educate CUNY students, faculty and staff about healthy and unhealthy food
  • Make it easier for students, faculty and staff to use stair and fitness programs on CUNY campuses
  • Reduce smoking rates among CUNY students to less than 5%(now estimated at about 9%)by promoting cessation
  • Integrate information on health, health advocacy and social dimensions of health into CUNY courses across disciplines to provide students with skills and competencies needed to promote individual, family and community health
  • Establish a Healthy CUNY Research Institute where CUNY faculty, students and staff can design and carry out research that will contribute to improving health of urban young adults
  • Assist other urban universities to learn from our experiences in promoting the health of students, faculty and staff
  • Train CUNY students to serve as health advocates on their campuses and in their communities.

Who are the people in the Healthy CUNY Initiative and how can I join?

Healthy CUNY participants are students, faculty and staff like you. Anyone can participate and anyone can take action. CUNY units that have participated in planning or carrying out HCI activities include the CUNY Chancellor's Office, Student Services, staff from Mental Health and Wellness Programs throughout CUNY, the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, faculty and students from many campuses including Brooklyn College, Kingsborough Community College, Hunter College, Lehman College, Queens College, the Graduate Center, Hostos Community College and others. The Co-Directors of the Healthy CUNY Initiative are Luis Manzo, Director of CUNY Mental Health and Wellness Services and Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College. The coordinator is Patti Lamberson, MPH. To find out more about Healthy CUNY visit our website at www.cuny.edu/healthycuny or email: plambers@hunter.cuny.edu.