Last updated: March 25. 2014 7:51PM - 1260 Views
By Heather Rutz hrutz@civitasmedia.com

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LIMA — Allen County still needs its prescription to eat more healthy food, get moving and quit smoking.

Allen County earned a rank of 39 of 88 counties in health outcomes and 66 of 88 counties in health factors, from the County Health Rankings.

Surrounding counties generally scored much healthier, including Putnam and Mercer, which are among the top five healthiest counties in the state.

The regional data is part of the fifth annual rankings, released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The rankings are available at http://countyhealthrankings.org. This year's rankings feature several new measures including housing, transportation, and access to mental health providers.

Within Allen County's rankings, the numbers show some improvement and some decline in community health.

While the health outcome rank of 39 drops Allen County four spots from 2013's rank of 35, it's 10 better than 49 in 2010, the first year of the study. The health factor rank of 66 is an improvement over last year's rank of 74, but a decline from 62 in 2010.

Multiple groups in the community are working to improve community health. It is challenge: Allen County traditionally has ranked among the worst in the state in a subset ranking, health behaviors. The category measures things such as adult smoking, obesity, food environment, excessive drinking, teen births and sexually transmitted infections. Allen County improved slightly, going from 83 in 2013 to 81 in 2014.

Jerry Courtney, executive director of Lima Family YMCA and coordinator of the Activate Allen County effort, is taking the long view on the issue. While some want sound bites or evaluate year over year data, Courtney said the work in Allen County is “generational.” It requires the work of multiple organizations on multiple levels and it requires a cultural shift.

“We're having a lot of discussion about what a culture of well being and health means. We want the health of our population to be a guiding principle for public and private decision making,” Courtney said. “The default here is personal choice, but the issue is much more complex than that. A lot of structural and policy issues affect how one decides about health rarely get discussed. This is a 30- to 40-year generational journey, so the next generation lives longer and their quality of life is higher.”

According to the 2014 rankings, the five healthiest counties in Ohio, starting with most healthy, are Geauga followed by Putnam, Delaware, Medina and Mercer. The five counties in the poorest health, starting with least healthy, are Scioto, Lawrence, Adams, Jackson and Meigs.

The rankings rank the overall health of nearly every county in all 50 states. The rankings allow counties to see how well they are doing on 29 factors that influence health including smoking, high school graduation rates, employment, physical inactivity, and access to healthy foods.

Nationally, this year's rankings show:

•People living in the least healthy counties are twice as likely to have shorter lives as people living in the healthiest counties.

•Unhealthy counties also have twice as many children living in poverty and twice as many teen births as the healthiest counties.

•Teen birth rates have decreased, but there remain twice as many in the least healthiest counties.

“Where we live does matter to our health, and we all have a role to play in building a culture of health in communities,” said Karen Odegaard, an associate researcher with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. “Change takes time, and it's really the work of the community coming together and deciding what's important. Everyone has a role, and not just doctors, hospitals, public health workers. It's teachers in schools, people who pass laws, anyone who cares for kids. It's all of us.”

A project of Allen County Public Health's Creating Healthy Communities shows the power of that, said Monica Harnish, who coordinates the program and grant. Most of the people who eat at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen live in areas with limited access to fresh, healthy food. Creating Healthy Communities partnered with Transition Lima and Lima Senior High School teachers and students to expand a garden for the soup kitchen. Students built raised garden beds, started seedlings and planted vegetable and herb plants and Transition Lima coordinated volunteers help with watering and weeding. The kitchen increased its use of fresh herbs and vegetables.

Harnish said the program is in its last year of funding; it is helping other community gardens, supporting workplace lactation, tobacco-free polices and bike/pedestrian infrastructure.

“Our focus is to make a lot of these programs self-sustaining, so they live beyond the grant,” Harnish said. “We used to focus a lot on individual responsibility, but when you want to eat healthy food and it's not available, that's a problem.”

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