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Improving Communities Can Improve MN's Health

PHOTO: Mother and kids. CREDIT: Courtesy of BC/BS of Minnesota Foundation
PHOTO: Mother and kids. CREDIT: Courtesy of BC/BS of Minnesota Foundation
September 19, 2012

ST. PAUL, Minn. - A unique approach aimed at improving the health of Minnesotans involves improving the conditions of neighborhoods and communities around the state.

While each person has control over individual health decisions, says former Minnesota health commissioner Jan Malcolm, community conditions - from environmental pollution to education and transportation - also play a large role.

"The conditions that exist in our communities powerfully influence the choices that are available to us, or the likelihood that we'll actually do the things that we know we should do, from a health standpoint."

Malcolm now serves as chief executive of Courage Center, a rehabilitation and resource center in Golden Valley for people of all ages with disabilities. For their health, for instance, Malcolm says reliable transportation is key so they can hold down a job because those who work are, on average, healthier than those who don't have jobs.

Another example of a community's impact on health is seen in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood in south Minneapolis. Malcolm says that area doesn't have a grocery store - and for the mother without a vehicle, that could mean less healthy food choices.

"If the only store she can walk to is the corner convenience store, which has very little in the way of produce - it's expensive, what's there, it's not high quality. And the cheapest food in the neighborhood is likely to be a McDonald's - or macaroni and cheese."

One group in the state focused specifically on the social determinants of health is the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. Its executive director, Carolyn Link, says the foundation recently supported a grant used for housing in Northfield.

"That grant enabled the community to build four new affordable homes and renovate 200 rental units. That, in turn, reduced the health hazards that children were exposed to, like lead paint and asbestos. And so, the kids living in those homes are able to have a better chance for a healthy start in life."

More information on the foundation is online at bcbsmnfoundation.org.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - MN