Wellmark presents on free project

Community leaders warn of poverty challenges in Fort Dodge

Some people are highly motivated to work out in a gym or go on a diet — but what about the rest of us?

There are hundreds of steps, both big and small, that can make it easier for all people in a community to make healthy choices, according to Mary Lawyer, director of community health improvement for Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“Your zip code could impact your health more than your genetic code,” Lawyer said.

Lawyer gave a presentation for Fort Dodge community leaders and health professionals about Wellmark’s Healthy Hometown project at the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance Wednesday afternoon.

Wellmark created the program, Lawyer said, in part because health care costs are growing so fast they’re becoming unsustainable, and changes in the environment can help people be healthier.

“Our environments have changed a lot in 40 years, and with that change our waistlines have changed a lot too,” she said. “The way we set up our environments can impact our overall health outcomes.

“Is it easier to drive someplace than walk there? Is it easier to grab fast food or cook something healthy?”

The goal of Healthy Hometown is to make the healthy choice the easy choice for more people.

It’s a free program, and there are two ways to use it, Lawyer said.

Cities, counties, businesses, schools and other organizations can take a free assessment online.

The second option would bring an expert to town to offer specific strategies.

These are all evidence-based strategies, based on research and on experience Wellmark had running a similar Blue Zones project.

About 17 people came to the meeting, including Fort Dodge city officials, county officials, representatives of UnityPoint Health, the Fort Dodge Community Health Center, and the University of Iowa Specialty Clinics.

The program doesn’t require big changes all at once; in fact picking out one small thing to start with can be successful, Lawyer said.

Lori Branderhorst, Fort Dodge’s director of parks, recreation and forestry, got a lot of ideas this way.

“I’m going to go after some of the low-hanging fruit,” Branderhorst said, such as trying to get bike racks installed at city hall, and providing healthy choices in city vending machines.

There’s another thing that affects health outcomes, though, said Randy Kuhlman, chief executive officer of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way.

In a study done 10 years ago, the healthiest communities correlated with the communities that had the higher income.

“It was pretty obvious,” Kuhlman said.

Several people at the meeting said Fort Dodge has a problem with poverty that will make these sorts of health initiatives difficult to tackle.

There are a lot of single moms in the community, Kuhlman said.

“They’re doing a lot of things. They’re trying to figure out how to feed the kids fast – I’ve got to do the laundry, I’ve got to go to work,” Kuhlman said. “The demographics plays a huge role in being able to get people even thinking about these (health) things, when they have so much else on their plate.

“I think this is 25 years or longer I’ve been here, this is probably the seventh meeting I’ve been to like this. We’ve always tried to start something, and it never works,” Kuhlman added.

Fort Dodge City Councilman Terry Moehnke, who also organizes the Backpack Buddies program, said health needs to be addressed in the youngest citizens.

“Childhood obesity is terrible,” Moehnke said. “If you’re not addressing this problem at an early age — a lot of latchkey kids, a lot of single-parent families — you’re not addressing the needs of the community.”

Mayor Matt Bemrich said putting things that groups in the area are already doing — such as fit walks, building trails, changing roads to be more walker-friendly, recreation activities– all under one umbrella could help things move forward.

“A branded campaign engaging our existing entity with Healthy Hometown powered by Wellmark, creates some validity in the branding,” Bemrich said. “Using basic PR methods and social media, you could create a buzz just by taking that brand and pushing it out there.”

That branding was helpful for the previouis Blue Zone project, Lawyer said.

“All of them said the moniker, the logo-ing, the wrapper we were able to put around stuff we were already doing and the new stuff we did to communicate that to the community, worked,” she said.

But what happens next?

The next step will be for various groups in town to complete inventories of what they are already doing and communicate with Wellmark. At some point, Bemrich said he hopes the group can meet again with even more members present. Lawyer said a specialist would come up to Fort Dodge for a three hour meeting.

Kuhlman cautioned that meetings alone won’t yield results.

“Look for the low hanging fruit, and build from there, because we can do a three hour planning session, and how many of those have we all been through?” he said. “I’m sorry to be cynical, but it’s hard to get everything organized and keep it going.”

“I like cynicism because it makes me want to get more people involved, get more engaged,” Bemrich said. “I’ve dealt with cynicism since the first day I was on the City Council.

“I like that we’ve done this and failed, because that gives us more reason to do this and succeed, and figure out the right way to do this.”