The countryside is the place to go if you want to live a healthy life with clean air and water, lots of exercise, and fresh foods, right?
Wrong. Maybe dead wrong.
That pastoral dream is a fantasy according to a report on the relative health of counties throughout the United States released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The study found that, across the country, suburban and urban counties tend to be healthier than rural counties. In fact, 84 percent of the unhealthiest counties across the country are rural.
This matters to me because I live in Illinois where the majority of our 103 counties are rural, including my own. The map of the study’s “health outcomes” printed in USA Today showed the five healthiest counties in each state in green, and the five unhealthiest counties in red. My eye immediately went to the lone green spot in the middle of Illinois. That green spot had a familiar outline. It is where I live: Woodford County.
On “health outcomes,” the study ranks Woodford the third best of Illinois’s 101 counties, right behind the relatively affluent Chicago “collar counties” of Kendall and DuPage. Indeed, our death and disease rates are impressively lower than neighboring rural counties.
What makes Woodford County a veritable oasis of health in a sea of less healthy rural counties?
There are many threads you can pull from the data that contributed to the study’s rankings, including statistics about health behaviors (alcohol and tobacco use, obesity rates), social and economic factors (education, employment, income, community safety), health care access and quality, and environmental factors, including air quality and access to healthy foods.
From all these metrics, a few special characteristics of Woodford County stood out. First, our county seat (Eureka, pop. 5,000) has its own hospital, which undoubtedly helps our high ranking in access to health care. But our ranking was also boosted by our access to healthy foods.
The study measured “access to healthy foods” as the percent of zip codes in a county with a healthy food outlet, which was defined as a grocery store or produce stand/farmers’ market. Woodford County doesn’t have as many grocery stores as we did when I was growing up here, but we still have a lot compared to the barren “food deserts” of many rural counties. Plus we have produce stands and farmers markets, as well as local CSAs and many other informal ways to get healthy local foods from our neighbors—many of whom are organic farmers.
This is something the study didn’t measure, but which may be an important predictor of health: freedom from exposure to agricultural chemicals, and a cluster of farmers raising healthy foods for local consumption.
Unlike most of the Midwest, the landscape of Woodford County does not consist of thousands of flat acres carpeted in chemical-intensive corn and soybeans. Rather, because the last glacier of the ice age deposited mounds of granulated rock and sand here, we have wooded hills, steep ravines, and rolling pastures–many too steep and rolling for the giant machinery of chemical-industrial agriculture.
For these reasons, our farms have remained relatively small (averaging only 337 acres) and many of them are organic–some for more than a generation. Within a 10-mile radius of where I live, there are at least 10 organic farmers. Instead of raising subsidized commodity crops destined for feedlots, processed foods, ethanol plants, or export, these farmers grow fruits and vegetables, meats and eggs, and other healthy foods for their families and their communities. Many of my urban friends have no idea how rare this is–to actually find real food in farm country.
Not only does this local food production lead to easy access and greater consumption of healthy food, it also contributes to the health of people living in Woodford County in other ways, including relatively clean air to breathe and water to drink. While the only environmental factor this study measured was air particulates, many other studies link exposure to agricultural chemicals to more miscarriages, childhood cancers, Parkinson’s and other diseases. Woodford County has thousands of organic acres whose air, soil, water, animals and people are not exposed to agricultural chemicals.
When you add up our county’s lower chemical exposures, our organic farmers doing physical labor, the jobs created when organic farmers hire workers instead of using chemicals, and farmers and workers who make a decent living by direct-marketing their products you get communities that are physically and economically healthy. These are just a few of the reasons that my little county ranked third out of all 103 counties in Illinois.
While this is good news for me and the nearly 40,000 other residents of Woodford County, we need to work for the same level of good health everywhere. In addition to improving access to affordable, quality health care, we need to increase the production and consumption of healthy foods in every community. One way to do this is to push our legislators for changes in federal farm policy that in effect subsidizes junk food.
Another way is for each of us to buy sustainably-raised foods from our local farmers. By supporting local, sustainable agriculture, we not only get delicious food and better personal health, we create jobs, improve our communities’ economic health, and facilitate a cleaner environment.
So bite into a lovely local apple today, and watch the healthy ripples expand.