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How to help solve some social problems? Improve our health

Participants at the Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference highlight examples of health-focused programs that improve society.

Fifty percent of health outcomes can be attributed to factors like access to health care and healthy foods, opportunities for active living, quality early childcare, quality housing, and access to good schools and job opportunities.
MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

Jane Patrick from the Early Childhood Dental Network in west central Minnesota described a Head Start teacher’s struggle to understand why one 4-year-old in her class was such a behavior challenge. He didn’t want to learn, he wouldn’t even eat kid-favorite foods like carrots and apples.

Then, the teacher opened the child’s mouth and found it full of tooth decay.

Once a network dentist filled cavities in 18 of the child’s 20 teeth, his behavior improved and he was able to set about playing and learning.

The story is one small example of the connections between good health and greater success in life highlighted at a gathering of about 200 educators, health-care professionals, community developers and nonprofit leaders who met in St. Paul recently for the Minnesota Healthy Communities conference.

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Conference participants offered other and bigger examples — good and  affordable housing as a life-saving “vaccine,” for instance — that they say should be part of a larger national collaboration for a healthier America.

Research consistently demonstrates that social and economic factors in a community play a large role in determining health. You’ve heard the point hammered home in local studies from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Wilder Research that zip code can be as important as genetic code in determining health.

Fifty percent of health outcomes can be attributed to factors other than genetics, factors like access to health care and healthy foods, opportunities for active living, quality early childcare, quality housing, and access to good schools and job opportunities, Ela Rausch told me in a telephone interview.

Rausch is project manager in community development for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, one of the hosts of the conference. The Minneapolis Fed, in connection with the national Community Reinvestment Act passed in 1977, has a role in encouraging collaborations to improve economic growth in low-income communities, and this conference was part of that.

In the housing world, Rausch said, people are even starting to talk about housing as a vaccine. “Safe and affordable housing is a way of inoculating children against some of the things that can cause tremendous health problems,” like lead and asthma, she said.    

But to improve the health of the 20 percent of all Americans who live in poor neighborhoods with poor health outcomes, we need to improve what influences health outside doctors’ offices, explained Elaine Arkin, manager of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. She keynoted the conference.

And until the commission began its work, Arkin said, many community development people and health promoters sat at different tables not knowing how to talk to each other. 

The conference promoted collaboration between health and community development folks in Minnesota to work together for change across Minnesota and in low-income communities and communities of color.

Other local conference hosts were Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Initiative Foundation and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

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Representatives from 19 local programs were on hand to highlight programs that demonstrate such cross-sector partnerships that include schools, hospitals, health and dental clinics, health insurers, the homeless, communities of color, churches, Indian tribes and county health departments.

Projects ran the gamut from access to healthy foods to opportunities for physical activity, from availability of health care to healthy housing and quality early childhood care and education.

Minnesota programs showcased included The Clipper Clinic, where barbers urge their clients to get health screenings at a partnering Minneapolis clinic, and PowerUp in Washington County, which helped three schools open their gymnasiums for free time exercise, got more fresh foods into emergency food shelves and coaxed local restaurants to put healthier food choices on their menus.  

In other efforts, groups lobbied for a safe place to play at a mobile home park in Olmsted County, developed a texting suicide-prevention program in Carlton County and organized a healthy food initiative with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.