Robust Eastern Kentucky economy starts with good health

July 19, 2014 

  • Deborah Payne is health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

By Deborah Payne

This summer, SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) is holding hundreds of listening sessions across Eastern Kentucky to gather feedback on what communities feel is required for a brighter future. The project, initiated by Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, has drawn a lot of attention both regionally and nationally in its effort to address a few of the toughest economic, social and environmental challenges in the country.

A recent session in Prestonsburg tackled health. The workshop of about 20 members opened with some startling statistics. Kentucky ranks 50th in the country for total mortality, 50th for cancer, 49th for poor mental health, 49th for heart disease and 48th for the number of people who have a high school diploma. How did we get here?

The conversation suggested a myriad of issues at play.

Education, employment, poverty, access to medical resources, nutrition, and having safe, walkable communities were on the list. But, considered just as crucial was having the political and social will to address these issues. The ideas for change were as diverse as the challenges.

When it comes to obesity and nutrition, elders need to teach younger generations how to grow a garden and can their own food.

We need to make water safe to drink and get soda machines out of schools. We need to build sidewalks that allow folks to safely go outside to get some exercise. Investments in home energy efficiency can help families save money and improve air quality.

We need investments in education. We need to give students a voice in the process. We need to pay attention to the kids smoking in the bathroom and rethink why Mountain Dew and a honey bun have become acceptable breakfast items. We need needle exchanges to curb the spread of HIV resulting from a boom in heroin use. We need to talk about mental health, not ignore the fallout that comes from unemployment, addiction and poverty.

Basic advice suggests a healthy life is easy. Eat right, don't smoke, get plenty of exercise and plenty of rest. But Eastern Kentucky's health statistics suggest that it's not.

Lasting change requires collaborations, community engagement, education, sharing success stories and a broad look at all social and environmental indicators of health.

History tells us that political decision-making in our state has not always prioritized health. Leaders in the region have supported cuts in affordable health care, WIC nutrition programs, school nurses, Pell grants for higher education and subsidies that provide heat for low-income families.

If we want to break from our past we've got to be more forward thinking about prevention, education and how we make our investments. Eastern Kentucky is already full of ideas and active solutions.

Now it's up to the region's leaders, not just those in political office, but the teachers, dentists, nurses, CEOs, students and parents to start thinking big. Only through the voices and leadership of Kentucky's brightest and best will we get Kentucky moving toward better health.

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