This summer, S.O.A.R. (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. Beshear and Congressmen 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 that have a high school diploma. How did we get here?
The conversation suggested a whole myriad of issues at play. Education, employment, poverty, access to medical resources, nutrition, and having safe, walk-able communities were on the list. But just as much, having the political and social will to address these issues was considered crucial.
The ideas for change were as diverse as the challenges. When it comes to obesity and nutrition, elders need to be involved 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 go outside to get some exercise and not be concerned about their own safety.
When it comes to asthma, investments in home energy efficiency can help families save money and improve air quality.
We need investments in education. We need to create health clubs that allow students to have 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 as a real concern and not ignore the fallout that comes from not having a job, battling addiction and struggling with the ranks of poverty.
Some basic advice suggests that the formula to a healthy life is easy. Eat right, don’t smoke, get plenty of exercise and plenty of rest. It’s simple.
But Eastern Kentucky’s health statistics suggest that it’s not. Lasting change requires collaborations, community engagement, education, sharing of 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.
The reality is that if we want to make a 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 solutions are currently in action. Now it’s up to the region’s leaders, not just those in political office, but also the teachers, dentists, nurses, CEOs, students and parents, to start thinking big on change. Only through the voices and leadership of Kentucky’s brightest and best will we get Kentucky moving towards better health.
Deborah Payne is health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.