Health disparity across Petaluma

Report shows stark differences between Petaluma neighborhoods; nonprofits discuss solutions|

Pockets of poverty are nestled within the Petaluma community, with stark social and economic divides between neighborhoods throughout the city, data shows.

The reality of those disparities is highlighted in a report by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, which scored 99 census tracts in the county using a human development index, a metric that measures well-being based on factors including health, access to education and income. The index is on a scale of 0 to 10.

Using that 2014 Portrait of Sonoma County report, officials from the Petaluma Health Care District drilled down to find Petaluma-specific data. That data examines imbalances within neighborhoods and between races, ethnicities and genders, while underscoring the connection between factors like education, quality of life and money.

A group of community leaders gathered Wednesday at a Petaluma Community Relations Council meeting to better understand and combat those issues that shape the city. The recently-formed council unites local nonprofit leaders to tackle key topics, like immigration and health care.

“We have this inequality in Petaluma, and shining a light on it is important for everyone, especially for this group,” said Elece Hempel, board president of the Petaluma Health Care District, which owns the Petaluma Valley Hospital, the city’s only acute care facility that serves 19,000 patients annually.

The data shows the largest difference between Petaluma’s west side Old Quarry neighborhood, which received a 7.71 well-being score – 5th place in the county – and the Lucchesi/McDowell tract, which includes low-income and senior housing and earned a 4.6 on the index, ranking it the 78th in the county.

The report shows those living in the west side Cherry Valley neighborhood make an average of $47,536 annually, while the residents in the Lucchesi/McDowell area average $26,597 yearly.

On the education side, the report found that 65 percent of white Sonoma County children are enrolled in preschool, while only 39 percent of Latino children had access to early childhood education that district officials say impacts future successes.

The study asserts that education is the single largest predictor of earnings for racial and ethnic groups. While Petaluma has a lofty high school graduation rate, a gap exists in access to higher education. In Quarry Heights, 57.5 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24.2 percent in the Lucchesi/McDowell area.

The data also underscores countywide disparities along the lines of gender, race and ethnicity.

Across the county, women earn an average of $8,000 a year less than men.

Though the numbers are troubling for health care officials, the data provides a launching point for change.

“We’ve seen this data and we know these disparities exist in our community,” Community Outreach Program Manager Erin Hawkins said. “We’re not just letting the data lie there and gather dust on our shelves, we’ve produced an agenda for action.”

Hempel, the executive director of Petaluma Peoples Service Center, pointed out initiatives already making an impact, including the Community Health Initiative of the Petaluma Area, which is focused on public heath. She also highlighted the Sober Circle, which guides serial inebriates on the road to sobriety, outdoor education in local elementary schools and a program to give seniors access to transportation.

“We are continuing to make differences,” she said.

The council will reconvene for more discussion, said B’nai Israel Jewish Center’s Rabbi Ted Feldman, a founder and coordinating committee member.

“It’s wonderful to know how much is actually happening in the community,” he said. “Each of us gets locked into our own little world and we forget so much happening and so many people are engaged in trying to fill in these blanks.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at

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