NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Hernando, Miss., Mayor Chip Johnson says listening to voters is a big part of the reason he's now being held up as a national model for creating healthier cities and counties.
His creation of a parks department, a farmer's market and an employee wellness program were among reasons the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute asked Johnson to join a teleconference Tuesday about their survey of healthy and unhealthy counties.
Hernando is the seat of DeSoto County, which has led Mississippi all three years of the survey.
"I think citizens – not just in our town but nationwide – want these things," Johnson said. "They want bike lanes, they want access to healthy food. But all too often, mayors and boards don't want to listen to them. When I ran for mayor in 2005 ... they said they wanted a park system, they wanted sidewalks, they wanted a bikeable community."
DeSoto County, where the median household income is $60,395 a year, is only 25 miles from lowest-ranked Quitman County, in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. Mississippi's median household income is $36,851 a year and Quitman's $24,169, according to Census figures.
Farther south along the Big Muddy, at Louisiana's northeastern tip, is East Carroll Parish, the lowest-ranked in the Bayou State. Median household income there is $24,038 compared to $42,505 statewide and $59,350 in top-ranked St. Tammany Parish, across broad Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
Money does matter, said Dr. Patrick Remington, associate dean for public health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. But, he said, it's not everything.
"The border counties of Texas have quite high rates of poverty and low rates of education, but have some of the longest-living populations," he said. "It's obviously related to healthier lifestyles, close-knit families and social support."
Michelle A. Larkin, assistant vice president and deputy director of the health group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said, "That's one of the reasons we don't rank state-to-state." The data is meant to help counties look at how they're using limited resources "and tackle problems that are greatest for them, whether it's increasing high-school graduation rates or bringing businesses to the community."
The rankings are based on a wide array of data from vital statistics and government health surveys. They range from obesity, low-birth weight babies and premature deaths – people who die of preventable diseases before they turn 75 – to unemployment, education, pollution and the percentage of fast food in the restaurant total.
Poverty, lack of education and unemployment are longstanding problems in the Mississippi Delta. Obesity and smoking are among other factors that make counties and parishes along the Mississippi River among the least healthy places to live in the states, the report shows.
"We all have our pockets of the less fortunate," Johnson said. "Our one community center is in the lowest-income neighborhood. Our community garden is there. Our farmers' market is in walking distance of that neighborhood." A Safer Routes to School grant was used to put sidewalks in the poorest neighborhood, he said.
The rankings aren't meant to shame low-ranked counties.
"I'd be naive to say competitive interest doesn't pique interest in the rankings," said Remington. But, he said, "This is not intended to be a race to the top" – any state will have one county at the top and another at the bottom.
It's meant to help counties, cities and communities set goals and monitor changes in such measurements as smoking rates, physical activity, employment, and the percentage of children living in poverty, Remington said.
Johnson, who took office five years before the first set of rankings, said he was looking for a way to give city workers a raise when he learned about a wellness program available through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi. It cut premiums 15 percent, enough to give the 120 workers a 2 percent raise, he said.
About the only thing done during its first year was a health fair, he said, but three workers told him they were getting checkups because of medical problems it turned up. "If even one of those prevented something drastic from happening" in such a small group, it could cover the premium change, Johnson said.
Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the Mississippi State Department of Health, said district health officers from across the state were meeting Tuesday in Jackson, and would be briefed about the statistics. They were being asked, "Please take this as a tool and please send it to your boards of supervisors and set up meetings to talk to them about it. And to city planners," she said.
Sharlot said one state health initiative has been getting schools to agree to let area residents use their gymnasiums and walking tracks when the schools are closed.
Johnson said Hernando has such a partnership so city basketball programs can use school gyms.
Louisiana's state health officer, Dr. Jimmy Guidry, said much the same as Sharlot.
"It helps when you can give a community these rankings and say, 'Here are the data; here's where you rank on these measures. What are you going to do about it?
"It really takes all of us at the local level and the state level using this data" to make significant changes, he said.
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