Changing the way we think about public health

The OlympianMarch 19, 2014 

FILE: Thurston County Food Bank volunteer Carol Vannerson helps pack apples as with some 3,000 Thanksgiving food baskets in 2013.

STEVE BLOOM — Staff photographer Buy Photo

Chances are you didn’t reflect on your significant contribution to Thurston County’s public health while rolling your garbage can to the street this week.

But as recent as the early 20th century, people threw garbage into the street, causing a problematic buildup of waste in cities, obvious sanitation issues and the spread of disease. Garbage collection, as we know it today, didn’t debut until the 1890s in New York City, and it took many more years for the concept to spread across America.

We take garbage collection for granted today, along with other public health advancements, such as sewage treatment systems, inspections of the meat packing industry and other food producers and, more recently, immunizations.

But Thurston County Public Health Director Don Sloma uses the history of waste management to illustrate the point that quality of life and public health are inter-connected. Public health is about how we live and what the whole community does.

That’s part of the theory behind the program called Thurston Thrives that Sloma introduced to the South Sound two years ago. The program has used broad community engagement to identify nine areas of public health where South Sounders are already working, and align them with long-range desired outcomes.

Over the next six years, it will take hundreds of community volunteers and leaders to implement strategies to achieve those nine outcomes. The goal is to elevate the quality of life in Thurston County by people eating healthfully, getting ample exercise, weighing less, getting a good education, finding rewarding employment, and connecting with causes that give people a sense of purpose and belonging.

Public health experts acknowledge that income and education are the two highly reliable predictors of public health. Residents in communities that have more of both enjoy a healthier quality of life.

The benefit of Thurston Thrives is creating synergy between the goals of the nine action teams. The food group may create community awareness about the connection between food and health, and persuade people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and eventually to lose weight.

That goal connects with the goal of the action team seeking to create local food-producing jobs and sustain the environmental health of agricultural lands.

Perhaps most important, public health studies show that people live longer where there’s a high degree of community cohesion. When people share a vision and connect to something bigger than themselves, they experience less stress, which is at the root of many health problems.

The desire for social connection is so strong, Sloma said, area firefighters report that nearly 40 percent of 911 calls come from isolated people who just want to talk.

Thurston Thrives will change the way we think about public health. It’s no longer just giving people shots and inspecting restaurant kitchens and collecting garbage.

It’s about how we live, how we eat and exercise, how well we educate our children, how we protect our environment, and — most crucial — how strongly we are connected with one another.

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