The unhealthy state of our city

Illustration by Chris Kindred
Illustration by Chris Kindred

Shane Wade
Opinion Editor

When you’re living in a locality reported to be one of the most unhealthy localities in the state, you start to wonder whether we might need, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has tried to implement, a ban on unhealthy food items.

The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, a collaborative project between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, published its fourth annual report last week.

In it, the project ranked the city of Richmond 121st out of 139 counties and cities in Virginia, basing the ranking on a number of health-related factors and comparing them on a state and national average. Among the top five healthiest (and coincidentally wealthiest) areas were Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Albemarle and York counties.

Here’s a few tidbits from the study: We’re over both the state and national average for adult smoking, adult obesity, physical inactivity and sexually transmitted infections. 11.9 percent of births are of low weight and 15 percent of adults report poor to fair health, along with 3.5 percent admitting to having periods of poor physical and mental health.

Twenty percent of the population over the age of 65 is without health insurance. The physical and mental well-being of that group, as well as our health ranking, would drastically improve should they be enrolled into a health plan.

Although twenty percent may seem like a low percentage, we should remember that health is not an individual issue; diseases and infections can be contagious. Your neighbors’ health is part of your health.

Eight percent of Richmonders are nutrient-starved and live in food deserts because they are low-income and do not live near a grocery store, according to the report, hindering their access to healthy foods.

It’s important to note that healthy food does not necessarily mean organic, locally grown, pesticide-free or free-range. Those options are expensive, even for middle-class consumers and there’s no real guarantee that the product you’re buying is healthier than the alternative.

A serious foe of healthy eating are fast-food restaurants, where calories are high and nutrients are low. Forty-four percent of all restaurant establishments in Richmond are fast-food locations, according to the study’s findings. The national average for limited access to healthy food and fast-food establishments are 1 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Instead of issuing more permits for the construction of cheap, unhealthy fast-food franchises, the city could instead help to promote farmer’s markets, grocery stores and other means for residents to access healthy food.

With 9.3 percent unemployment, shopping for ingredients to make home-cooked meals might seem more expensive, but weighing it against the alternative of an unhealthy lifestyle includes a pricy long-term cost. That cost includes expensive hospital stays, diabetes and heart complications.

To further combat limitations of the physical environment and aid in lowering the rate of physical inactivity from 28 percent, we could increase access to recreational facilities. Although Virginia legislators approved a plan that mandated elementary school students have at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, that’s not always enough and during the warm summer break, school’s not in session.

For those that would recommend children play outside after school, I would highlight that the violent crime rate in Richmond, according to the report, is almost 800 per 100,000 people, as well as the fact that 65 percent of children live in a single-parent household.

Employers, both private and public, have a responsibility to ensure their workers eat healthy and participate in physical activity. Employees with health issues affect their own productivity, as well as the lives of their co-workers. The solution isn’t to fire them. That action sends out a bad message and reinforces the pseudo-warrior ethos that has brought us here, but to encourage an active lifestyle.

The news about our poor health is unfortunate, but city officials have a banner opportunity before them to use the findings as the impetus for becoming a more health-conscious city.

It’s shameful for Mayor Dwight Jones and city officials to hide away from the findings. When you take pride in something and you’re responsible for its status, you take the bad along with the good. Only unworthy leaders shirk accountability for misdeeds and ignore the complex reality.

Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia; we should be a model of success and an aspiration for all of our state’s localities. Furthermore, there are a number of hospitals and treatment centers operating within the city, including the VCU health system. As well-funded as they are, there needs to be a stronger effort to promote the health of the city as a whole.

Good health begins before visiting a doctor. Preventative care is the best treatment. The food we consume, the status of our communities, our social support groups and what we teach the public are all critical influences on an individual’s well-being. Discounting those aspects, as the passivity of our city officials inactions has suggested, is a lethal mixture of arrogance and ignorance.

It takes a city to care for a city. Instead of thinking of ourselves as distinct and separate parts, we must acknowledge the facts governing our individual health.

Businesses have a stake here. Health care providers have a stake here. Insurance companies have a stake here. Consumers have a stake here. Government has a stake here.

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