Poverty Impacts Local County Health Rankings

Mar 31, 2017

Florida 2017 County Health Rankings Map.
Credit County Health Rankings

Local health advocates are going over details in the 2017 County Health Rankings, as part of determining their next moves in improving the collective health of their residents.  

Again this year, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa were among the healthiest counties in the state, while Escambia remained among the least healthy.

For 2017, Santa Rosa remained in the top 10 for the sixth year in a row. The county is now ranked as the seventh healthiest of Florida’s 67 counties, after moving up from its eighth place ranking last year.

Okaloosa improved its ranking from twelfth to eleventh.

But, Escambia trended in the other direction, falling three places to 58th in the state.

Dr. John Lanza is director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia. He says one of the key reasons for the health disparities across the region is the level of poverty, which is higher in Escambia.

“A lot of what we see as far as health outcomes go, including the ones at the top, there, health outcomes that deal with mortality and illness, quality of life A lot of that can be explained by poverty,” Dr. Lanza said. “The stress associated with that; the lack of exercise, good nutrition, the lack of perhaps quality medical care in some situations.”

According to the report, compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its partners, 27 percent of children in Escambia County live in poverty, while that number is much lower at 17 percent in Santa Rosa; it’s 19 percent in Okaloosa.

When it comes to health factors and health behaviors, Escambia is slightly higher than neighboring counties in the area of adult obesity (29%), teen births (43) and sexually transmitted diseases totaling 596.

“We have some of the highest STD rates in the state here,” said Lanza. “We’ve been trying for years and years and years, with the assistance of all of our health care providers, to talk about safer sex, decreasing HIV infections, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. I definitely think that’s one of the areas that we need to work on.”

In terms of improvements, Escambia County’s graduation rate has increased over the years, now up to 73%. There have been improvements in smoking rates among adults across the region.

“Well, what we’ve done is we’ve actually gone beyond the county health rankings and we’ve looked at a total of 164 different indicators,” said Nora Bailey, executive director of Live Well Partnership for a Healthy Community.

The organization has partnered with the Health Department and many other organizations to work on solutions to the biggest health problems in both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

The priority areas are tobacco use, access to health care, and healthy weight and nutrition.    

“One of the issues that we’re really focused on right now is ‘how do we improve access for people who live in food deserts and who don’t have transportation,” Bailey said in reference to finding ways to increase the ability of such residents to buy healthy foods. “So we’ve started to talk about several different initiatives, such as community gardens. We already have some in the community, but how do we increase the number of those?”

"Gangsta Gardener" Ron Finley talks to students at C.A. Weis Elementary School, which has a high poverty rate, about gardening as a source for healthy food.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

“Alright boys and girls, here comes Mr. Finley, the “Gangsta Gardener,” said C.A. Weiss Elementary School principal Holly Magee, as she introduced healthy food advocate Ron Finley to her kindergarten, first grade and second grade students.

Finley immediately begins explaining how creating your own garden - in whatever space you have - is cool, healthy, and pretty, too.

“And, this is what we want our neighborhoods to look like,” said Finley, as he referenced a photo projected on the school auditorium’s big screen. “Just like other neighborhoods, we want our neighborhoods to be vibrant and beautiful and healthy just like other parts of the city. The thing about it is we have to do it.”

Finley presented a talk about community gardening during this week’s Experience UWF Downtown Lecture. He says he was impressed by questions from the kids and knows that it’s important for their future to get them educated about food and health, sooner rather than later.

“Imagine if I learned what sustainability is at seven years old,” he said. “Imagine if I learned how to grow my own food, the freedom that that has. Imagine if I didn’t live in a neighborhood that I didn’t see violence every day; that there wasn’t drugs and alcohol everywhere, that they weren’t easier to get than an organic apple. Imagine that.”

Finley isn’t necessarily describing the neighborhoods that feed into Weis, but because of the many hurdles the students there face because of poverty it’s been targeted as a community school. The result is a comprehensive approach for dealing with the needs of the students and their families.  

When it comes to the health of the community at large, Dr. John Lanza points to Pensacola’s recent Ciclovia event aimed at promoting healthy activities such as walking and biking.

Otherwise, the director of the Department of Health-Escambia says everything is on the table.

“Looking at how to prevent infant deaths, to provide exercise programs for children in child care centers, less than six years of age situations, anti-smoking, anti-obesity issues. So, we’re (going to) keep plugging away to try to improve our health factors and health outcomes.”

Specifically for Escambia, the goal is to move the needle on health in a positive direction. That means not slipping back to the county’s lowest ranking of 59 in 2015 and moving toward - and possibly surpassing - their best ranking of 47 in 2011.