Ruth Rhodes

Del Norters: Plan to die early. If you want an alternative, start building a healthier community now. That's the message from the "2010 County Health Rankings" recently released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.

Del Norte County had the distinction of coming in last in the rankings of 56 counties in "Health Outcomes." The study revealed that we don't live long here compared to people in, say, Sonoma County. And we're likely to report having more "unhealthy days" than someone who lives in, say, Marin.

Why do we die sooner? Why do we report feeling mentally and physically sicker than our neighbors to the south and east? We know our community has many healthy attributes: a beautiful environment, fresh air, ocean access and - despite the rain - fantastic recreational opportunities.

But the report didn't measure the beauty of our sunsets. It looked instead at behavioral factors like our high rates of obesity and teen pregnancy. It examined social factors, too. We're poorly educated. We have lower than average high school graduation rates, and only 14 percent of adults in our county have college degrees. A full 30 percent of our children live in poverty. On top of that, we have negative environmental factors like limited access to fresh and healthy foods and higher than average access to liquor stores.

The good news? Many people in Del Norte County (including me) have become involved in the Building Healthy Communities Initiative. Spearheaded by The Wild Rivers Community Foundation and funded in part by the California Endowment, the 10-year project is intended to attack the root causes of poor community health.

Skeptical? Is this just another grab for grants that ends in handful of temporary jobs and no measurable progress? Well, this project has the potential to be vastly different. It is forcing us to examine the root causes of our dysfunction, and to go "up river" to solve those problems with policy and systems changes. The process is forcing us to ask: Why are we so poorly educated? Why do so many of our kids live in poverty? Why are our bodies nutrient-poor but physically fat?

This project is also forcing us to lean on each other. We're quickly realizing no one person is capable of coming up with the solution. No one person knows the systems and policies well enough. No one person speaks for the rest.

If understanding root causes isn't challenging enough, the next step is to figure out how to change our policies and systems so that we change our health outcomes. Our systems should focus on prevention. Our children and families should be safe from violence. Our teens should stay in school and grow up into healthy, productive people.

My initial thoughts: Blow up the televisions, open the libraries 24 hours a day, and give everyone parents like mine. Let Good Harvest cater school lunches and let Ocean Air Farm provide the produce. Create a program where kids can exchange their cell phones for mountain bikes.

Develop a treatment plan for addicts so that instead of needing a fix of methamphetamine or pain pills, they develop an addiction to National Public Radio and spend their days in harmless anticipation of hourly news updates. Let the homeless move into warm trailers and those in trailers move into houses with fenced, green yards. Let all the cats and dogs be spayed. Let our doctors have time to shake our hands before they look down our throats. Let everyone work a job they love for a living wage. Let families sit down to dinner together. Let there not be an "us" and a "them."

Have you got an idea - perhaps more grounded in reality than mine - that addresses root causes and would make our community healthier? The solution isn't going to come from the bureaucrats. It's going to come from you. I'll love to hear it, and I'll pass it on. Send me an e-mail.

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