2011′s top community health issues

Well friends, another year of investigating community health in the San Joaquín Valley is coming to an end.

Below are my picks for the Valley’s top five community health issues/trends of 2011. What did I miss? What issues were important to you this year? And what would you like to read more about next year? Let me know in the comments section below!

1. San Joaquín Valley’s contaminated drinking water grabs international attention

In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.

The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Her report, presented to the U.N. this fall, did not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.

“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she wrote. The agricultural San Joaquín Valley is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”

Water advocates hoped the U.N. report would shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos, and help them advocate for the Human Right to Water bill package, which was making its way through Sacramento.

It all must have made an impact. In October, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill package, which is intended to ensure that communities across the state have access to clean, affordable drinking water.

2. Poverty increases

Though the great recession officially ended in June 2009, Latinos across the country continued to struggle with poverty and food insecurity in 2010, government statistics showed this fall.

Nationwide, 26.6 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in poverty in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites was 13 percent in 2010.

California’s overall poverty rate — at 16.3 percent in 2010, up from 15.3 percent in 2009 — was above the country’s overall rate, 15.1 percent in 2010. In Fresno County, 20.9 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the most recent data available.

In the Valley, the increase in poverty was evident at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, where more and more families were seeking shelter after they had lost their job or home.

It was evident outside of Catholic Charities in September, when a husband and wife – both with degrees in social work – waited in line to receive food from the Neighborhood Market food distribution. (After I blogged about this couple, the woman was offered a job at Catholic Charities.)

And it was evident in November, when possibly hundreds of people were evicted from downtown Fresno’s homeless encampments. Two of the people I interviewed had landed on the streets when the money they made working in the San Joaquín Valley fields and packinghouses no longer covered the rent.

3. School food tops the menu

As child obesity – as well as poverty and food insecurity – has increased across the state and nation, more attention has been focused on the meals students eat while at school.

This winter, I reported on the trend of schools using innovative methods to ensure students eat breakfast.

 Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.

And thanks, in part, to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, schools began removing chocolate and strawberry milks from their school cafeterias. Los Angeles Unified School District last week became the largest school district in the nation to ban chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus, and Valley districts – including Earlimart, in Tulare Count – have also stopped offering flavored milk.

Is all this attention on school nutrition making an impact? I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but a recent Los Angeles Times story reports that L.A. Unified’s “trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.”

4. Health reform provides benefits – and challenges

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014, but the San Joaquín Valley is already experiencing ups and down from the law.

The Affordable Care Act designates funds to support the ongoing operations of community health clinics, create new health center sites in medically underserved areas, and expand preventative and primary health care services at health center sites, according to HealthCare.gov.

A sizeable portion of that money has been funneled into the medically underserved San Joaquín Valley. It’s hard to keep track of all the money coming into the Valley, but I’ve started tracking it in this blog post.

But preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also proven challenging for Fresno County. In September, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to withdraw the county’s Low Income Health Program application from consideration by the State Department of Health Care Services.

With the vote, the county became the first in the state to withdraw its application for the program, which was intended to help counties prepare for the expansion of Medi-Cal that will come with the implementation of the federal health care law in 2014.

5. Residents, experts approach environmental justice seriously and scientifically

As I reported this summer, people of color have become the state’s strongest environmentalists, since they are most burdened by environmental pollution, and the resulting health problems.

So this fall, it was neat to hear about two projects that are comprehensively measuring just how badly residents are burdened by pollution.

In Arvin – a farmworker community that has been considered one of the smoggiest cities in the nation – residents have kicked off a two-year, community-led air monitoring project, or “bucket brigade.”

And UC Davis researchers just released a three-year study that analyzes every census block in the eight-county Valley, and assigns each one a numerical score for environmental hazards, based on the most recent data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another score for its social vulnerability, based on recent U.S. Census data.

In the new year, both projects could be great tools for communities advocating for health and environmental justices.

From the archives:

File photos by Rebecca Plevin and Daniel Cásarez.

The Breakfast of Champion Students

UPDATE: ‘School Breakfast: Food for Thought,’ can be found here.

What did you have for breakfast this morning? I had oatmeal, cooked with almond milk, and topped with walnuts and dried blueberries.

Ask that question to a student though, and you might get some surprising answers. At Earlimart Elementary School, some students said they ate spaghetti, pizza, tamales, and Cocoa Puffs early that morning.

Others did not eat anything until 9:30 or 10 a.m. during the school’s Second Chance Breakfast, which the school offers to kids who did not make it to the school’s breakfast before the bell rang that morning.

Across the San Joaquín Valley, more school districts are beginning to implement non-traditional breakfast programs, like the Second Chance Breakfast in Earlimart. The programs are intended to improve a startling statistic: In California public schools, 2.3 million, or 70 percent of students eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals, are missing out on the benefits of a nutritious school breakfast.

(What is the school breakfast participation rate in your school district? Check out this table , from California Food Policy Advocates’ BreakfastFirst Campaign, to find out.)

By skipping the first meal of the day, students, families, and teachers lose out on so many benefits.

Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.

“For me, from the beginning, it has almost seemed like a no-brainer,” said Ellen Braff-Guajardo, senior nutrition policy advocate with California Food Policy Advocates’ BreakfastFirst campaign. “It’s an opportunity for student to receive breakfast at school, and to help families in these economic times be able to meet other bills, like housing, and other necessities of life.”

Approaches like the second chance breakfast in Earlimart, and the classroom breakfast in Modesto and Sanger, are making a difference in the number of kids eating school breakfast. Read more about these programs and their benefits in the next edition of Vida en el Valle.

Want to read more from this blog about school meals, and their impact on children’s health?

Top image by Daniel Cásarez. Bottom image from pugetsoundblogs.com.

Schooled in Health

I attended a fascinating seminar on the connection between schools and health during the California Working Families Policy Summit in Sacramento last week.

The seminar emphasized how crucial of a role schools could play, if school systems participated in all possible programs, and took advantage of community resources.

Consider all of these services and benefits schools could provide to students:

1. Schools could provide children with two healthy meals a day, said Ken Hecht of California Food Policy Advocates. But many lower-income students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals don’t take advantage of the breakfast program, he said.

For example, according to BreakfastFirst.org, 56 percent of students – or 43,367 students – who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals in Fresno Unified School District don’t eat breakfast. That means those students are missing out on a free, nutritious meal – and the school district is losing $5,551,897 in federal funds. Unbelievable!

2. Schools could also provide students – especially lower-income students who live in neighborhoods with few safe places to play- with needed physical activity.

But even as California’s childhood obesity rate increases, and as chronic diseases become more prevalent, many schools are not offering adequate physical education, said Jennifer Richard of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

In fact, she said, less than 50 percent of elementary schools in the state comply with P.E. mandates, often due to lack of funds or lack of gym teachers.

3. Schools could also provide needed health services, said Serena Clayton of the California School Health Centers Association.

Across the state, she said, there are 176 school-based health centers, run by a local clinic, the school district, or the local health department. The school-based health centers can provide students with flu shots and other vaccines, and can generally bring health services directly to students.

At a time when education budgets – and families’ wallets – are stretched thin, and at a time when rates of obesity and chronic diseases, as well as health disparities, are increasing, what can we do to ensure that more schools are providing these healthy resources, and more?