If you improve your community, do you get healthier?

It used to be when people thought of public health they largely had in mind clean drinking water and sewage systems and, later, vaccination programs and food safety. Now the field has broadened to include access to healthy food, opportunities for exercise, employment availability, housing and more and to involve more people and organizations.

Sometimes the best prescription for improving someone’s health is to get his heat turned on, for example.

That’s why the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research combined today to bring together a hundred or so people from Minnesota public health and community development organizations, urging them to think they’re working on the same problem.

There’s been a movement for a few years to get public health and community development programs thinking together, and today’s Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference was an effort to push that along.

As good a reason as any shows up in this map Wilder produced, illustrating how life expectancy in the Twin Cities can vary greatly depending on what neighborhood you live in.

life expectancy disparity.JPG

The keynote address had to adjust to Hurricane Sandy because Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, couldn’t get out of New Jersey. But she delivered a pre-recorded video, stressing that “there’s so much more to health than health care.”

She cited as a public health success the effort to get three more stops included on the light rail line under construction between Minneapolis and St. Paul. They will allow better inner city access to food, health services, jobs and recreation, all of which contribute to healthier outcomes, she said.

“Public health is community development,” she said.

And David Erickson, director of the Fed’s center for community development investments in San Francisco, showed two zip code maps of Los Angeles County. Gradations in economic hardship matched childhood obesity rates almost precisely.

LA maps.jpg

Minnesota’s health commissioner, Edward Ehlinger, noted that Minnesota has fallen in “healthy state” rankings and said the state is trying to focus more on communities in response.

“We’ve moving beyond medical treatment and prevention into community development,” he said. Bad housing, poor education, lack of economic development and unsafe neighborhoods generate poor health. A lack of health care access isn’t the only factor, he said. The message was that people trying to solve those problems should see themselves as improving the state’s health.

Minneapolis offers a number of examples of how public health’s purview meshes with community development. City health commissioner Gretchen Musicant described a variety of efforts her office has been involved in: helping corner stores stock healthier food, pushing for a bikeway through north Minneapolis, even getting involved in employment efforts for gang-affiliated young people.

“That’s outside our box of public health,” she said.

Which is what the Fed, Wilder and others involved today are looking for.

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