According to the report County Health Rankings and Roadmaps: Building a Culture of Health, County by County, eastern Kentucky is experiencing a health crisis. The project tracks a variety of measures that affect the future health of communities, such as high school graduation rates, access to healthy foods, rates of smoking, obesity, and teen births.
A graphic in the report shows the 120 counties of Kentucky shaded according to health rank– the lighter the shading, the healthier the county. Eastern Kentucky has thirty-seven of the forty lowest ranked counties. I went to the Floyd County Health Department (FCHD) to see if they had any answers as to why.
I met with Thursa Slone, the Executive Director of the FCHD, recently to talk about what the health department does for a community.
“We are more than WIC (Women, Infants and Children program) and baby shots,” she told me, “We are really so much more. We have programs on diabetes and diabetes prevention, exercise and yoga, body recall and jump rope for the kids; all programs that focus on nutrition and physical activity.”Slone said that a recent survey done in Floyd County showed that its biggest health issues were diabetes, obesity, illegal drug use, and lack of activity—all things that an individual with support can work on changing.
The FCHD is a lead supporter of the Floyd County Farmers’ Market partly because a farmers market is a logical local place to find wholesome food, and for Slone, food is a real issue in our region’s health.
She has a real concern about the links between health issues like cancer and diabetes and the food we eat. Slone, identifying herself as “early sixties” and being in the generation who has been exposed the longest to all the additives and preservatives in our food, said our world now “depends on those who grow food for us regardless of what they put on it or in it. And I’m really concerned for the next generation because we at least had some real food as kids.”
Bonnie Hale, a community social worker with the FCHD sees “public health as community health.” Hale has worked part time with the FCHD for about ten years and appreciates all the work they do in teaching young families better nutrition in part because she started learning about nutrition after her kids started leaving home.
“We always had a garden,” said Hale, “And I cooked so I thought I was doing the right thing. My kids like to tell a story on me. Sunday after church, lunch would be hot dogs, with Hormel chili. Do you know how many fat grams are in Hormel Chili?” she laughed. “I thought I was doing the best for my kids.”
Hale loves to talk to people about eating healthy and debunk the myth that healthy food is too expensive by working with other community partners in developing a cooking demo project. The project is called “Good and Cheap” after the cookbook by the same name written by Leanne Browne. “Good and Cheap” teaches participants how to use items they receive in food pantries or by using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC benefits to cook healthy, satisfying meals.
The project, taught in three food pantries and two health department satellite offices, was well received, and a second round has been funded through the Central Appalachian Network (CAN) small grant program’s food and health sector. The second round is doing four classes in Floyd County and plans to branch into Magoffin County to help increase the health of the region through local food and re-learned cooking skills.
The third and youngest person I interviewed at the FCHD, Christina Tincher, wears several hats there. Her classes include smoking cessation, senior exercise, teen outreach, chronic disease self-management, WIC, and helping Hale with the Good and Cheap project.
I asked her, what is WIC? She told me it is a program that teaches nutrition to mothers and pregnant women. The participant comes into the health department every three months for classes and screenings that track height, weight, and general health of the mothers and children. There is a supplemental food program component to the program too but it seems that the face-to-face contact is the most effective part of the program.
Tincher told me about one mother who came in and told her that her four-month-old baby kept spitting up. It ends up that the mother had been putting a milk flavoring product in her baby’s formula.
“Baby loves it,” the young mother said. Tincher explained to the new mom that adding flavoring to baby formula may not be a healthy option for the child and could be causing the problem.
“She called me the next day and couldn’t believe the difference,” Tincher said.
In addition to being full-time staff at the health department and working on her master’s degree, Tincher is a second-year farmer.
“I love knowing where my food comes from. I really love it when everything I’ve used for a meal came from my farm,” Tincher shared.
She enjoys working with the farmers’ market and combined her interests one Saturday in August 2016 by facilitating a FCHD-sponsored health fair at the Floyd County Farmers’ Market.
The health department gave $5.00 farmers market vouchers to everyone who had their blood glucose and blood pressure screened.
“It was a fun way for people to know their numbers and support farmers at the same time,” Tincher said. In an interesting twist of fate, one of the people who had their numbers checked was a friend of Tincher’s.
“His BP was in the danger zone and he is only 22 years old,” she told me.
“Everyone should know their numbers,” was Slone’s parting comment to me, speaking about blood pressure and blood glucose numbers. Hale’s recommendation was to start a walking program and Tincher suggested eating breakfast every day. Three simple suggestions from three women who are dedicated to public health.“I can do that,” I thought to myself as I chose to use the stairs instead of the elevator when leaving the Floyd County Health Department.