Fagerlund explains current push for policies that involve community health in everything

    The way Kirsten Fagerlund sees it, if she thinks she's going to live until the age of 82 or so, she's probably going to live to be around that age.

    "But if I think I'm going to get to 102, then I probably will," the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) coordinator for Polk County Public Health continued. "But it's going to take some work. I'm going to have to make some changes."

    How reasonable and even easy it is for Fagerlund and countless others like her looking to live long lives in as healthy a fashion as possible is the driving force behind the push being made by her and many others in her field for individual and community health to be a part of just about everything government entities do, whether it's a city council, county board or planning commission.

    That approach to decision-making was the primary reason for a first-of-its-kind event at the University of Minnesota Crookston on Friday, Oct. 30 entitled, "People + Partners = Communities for a Lifetime" and sponsored by SHIP, Polk Norman Mahnomen Community Health Services, and University of Minnesota Extension.

    "One of our roles is to be a collaborative convener...just moving the community toward sustainable ideas and sustainable concepts that can be long-lasting," Fagerlund said in explaining the logic behind the event, which was highlighted by a question-and-answer session by Dave Tsang on the phenomenon of "Blue Zones," defined as places on the planet home to high concentrations of centenarians living remarkably long, full lives.

    Tsang, a retired General Mills executive, has traveled the globe with researchers to study the common lifestyles and cultural traits in various Blue Zones, and how communities all over could "embrace a few simple but powerful habits and create the right community to add years of robust living" to their lives. Beyond an individual's decision to live better and healthier, however, achieving Blue Zone status requires environmental changes in environments, workplaces, social networks, at the policy level.

    "Blue Zones use a model similar to SHIP, which is making the healthy choice as easy as possible," Fagerlund explained. "For years we've known the scientific information and we've spent a lot of time educating people, but if doesn't matter how smart you are or what you know if the choice you'd like to make is not reasonable, it's not easy.

    "Like, say, I know I need to make healthy food for my family, but that food is not in my fridge and I live on the south side of town and I don't have a car to get to the north side where the grocery stores are, then it's not easy," she continued."

    So Fagerlund and her colleagues and peers are making an especially enthusiastic push for policy-level change in Crookston and beyond for efforts that go beyond awareness events, and achieve policy status so that they're more sustainable. It's a "policy, systems and environmental change" approach that seeks a consideration of "health in all policies."

    It's making an impact in Crookston, where the city council, led by City Administrator Shannon Stassen, who also happens to be the current chair of the Polk County Wellness Coalition, has had many discussions over the past couple of years and has indeed approved resolutions with a community-level health approach in mind. Crookston is now a Level I GreenStep City, for example, and various community gardens have popped up of late. Earlier this fall, Stassen talked about exploring the establishment of Crookston as a "food hub."

    "People may roll their eyes, but this is about systemic environment change," Fagerlund explained. "All these events we hold all the time and all these awareness things we do, they're awesome, but it's about moving it to the next level. I'm not going to be here forever, so what of my work is going to last, what will be here after me? If we want to do something really awesome, it has to be a policy."

    So decision-makers are being asked more than possibly ever to consider the community health approach in everything they do. If they approve a new road, will it reduce crashes, improve pedestrian access and accessibility to food? If an architect designs a new building, does the elevator really have to be centrally located right by the main entrance, or can it be off to the side? "People need elevators, obviously, for accessibility purposes," Fagerlund explained. "But how do we get people from Point A to Point B safely, while using as much physical activity as possible."

    It might be as easy as seeing to it that an elderly person's steps and sidewalk to his or her mailbox is consistently cleared of snow in the winter, she added. "Because the day that I stop making that walk to get my mail, that's probably the day that I start to become an immobile person," Fagerlund said.

    She mentions the "Victory Gardens" from generations ago when she mentions that part of the current movement is about "going back to what we lost that was good, and how we can bring it back." While some people might think that talk of community gardens and walking trails and other quality of life amenities is "foofy stuff," Fagerlund said it's not.

    And it doesn't always take sweeping changes, she stresses. It can be much smaller things that can potentially make a larger difference. "If you stick a fruit bowl on the table, you or your spouse or your child is much more apt to grab a piece of fruit on the way out the door," she said. "Sure, offer some doughnuts at your meeting at work, but have some grapes there, too."

    "It's about what's right outside your door, but also about what your community has to offer," Fagerlund added. "This is system change, from the way you live your life to the way of life your community makes possible."