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Report identifies challenges, opportunities to improve health in Kandiyohi, Renville counties

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — Children in Kandiyohi County or Renville County have a higher likelihood than other Minnesota children of living in poverty.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, the two counties both have larger aging populations than the state average, and a shrinking number of younger people to take care of the old.

They face challenges as well in addressing common public health concerns such as obesity, teen pregnancy and motor vehicle deaths.

Over the next several months, local health officials will be collecting input on how to prioritize key public health issues and developing community-based approaches to improve the health of Kandiyohi County and Renville County residents.

“We know what the data says about the community and now we want to know what the community says,” said Chery Johnson, assistant nursing director of Kandiyohi-Renville County Public Health. “Our goal is we want this to be not just a public health plan but a community plan.”

The public health staff last week released the findings from an assessment of the two counties.

The report, prepared by the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris, uses data from a variety of sources — the U.S. Census, the Minnesota Student Survey, the Minnesota State Demographic Center and more — to create a portrait of overall community health that includes social, economic and environmental factors as well as physical and mental  health.

The assessment is the first step in developing a strategic plan that will be submitted in 2015 to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In upcoming months, findings from the report will be shared with communities and stakeholders. Focus groups also will be convened to further discuss the results and identify opportunities for local efforts to improve health.

“It’s really the beginning of the process. … Hopefully we will continue this conversation,” said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi-Renville County Public Health.

Among the key findings:

n The population of Kandiyohi County has been growing but at a slower rate than the state average. Meanwhile, the population of Renville County is declining. Both counties saw the largest population gains among new minority residents.

Both counties also have rising numbers of older adults and a shrinking younger population, with implications for how people will be cared for as they age.

* The poverty rate for children under 18 is higher in Kandiyohi and Renville counties than the state norm and has increased since 2008, when the recession began. Nearly half of children living in the two counties qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches in 2012.

* Both Kandiyohi and Renville counties consistently have teen birth rates that are higher than the state average. Teen pregnancy in Kandiyohi County has been on the increase in the past three years, counter to a national trend of declining rates in teen pregnancy.

* Renville County has one of Minnesota’s highest per capita rates of motor vehicle fatalities.

* Rates of adult obesity in the two counties are consistent with the state average, about three in every 10 adults.

The assessment found several assets as well: clean air, relatively low levels of crime and violence, and a high percentage of students who graduate on time from high school.

The report provides a rich and valuable source of data, Johnson said. “It will be something that we’ll be able to use in different ways.”

County officials say it’s an opportunity to broaden the focus from individual health to the environmental and community factors that help shape healthy living, such as availability of walking paths or access to fresh food.

Socioeconomics often are more critical to overall health than access to medical care, said Harlan Madsen, chairman of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

“There’s multiple, multiple reasons we have to engage communities,” he said.

Many components contribute to health, Stehn agreed.

“There’s things related to roads. There’s things related to the environment. There’s socioeconomics. Some pieces relate to education,” she said. “The health of our community really relates to so many other things.”

The assessment can be found online at http://bit.ly/1bhwDPZ

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