Justin Salters

Justin Salters is director of the Bakersfield office of Russo McGarty & Associates, a Sacramento-based public affairs firm


It’s time to have a real conversation about health.

And no, I’m not talking about how to increase the number of insured Americans. Or, how to decrease the cost of prescription drugs.

For a moment, let’s differentiate between access to medical care and health.

Healthy people don’t need doctors, hospitals or prescriptions. I’d rather be healthy than have good insurance. Wouldn’t you?

Sadly, our community is known for its poor health outcomes.

Forty-three percent of Kern County residents are obese. Another 31 percent are overweight. If you haven’t already done the math, that’s 3 out of 4 of us. Only 26 percent of residents have a healthy weight.

If these facts alarm you, good. The proportion of obese adults in Kern County is 58 percent higher than the state average.

It would be one thing if obesity only affected vanity, but it doesn’t. Obesity is a significant risk factor for diseases like type two diabetes, heart disease and stroke, in addition to an overall low quality of life. It’s a drain on our community.

According to Kern County Public Health, heart disease, stroke and diabetes account for 25 percent of all deaths in Kern County. They’re the reason for 5,000 emergency department visits and 7,500 hospital admissions every year. These three diseases alone cost us $600 million annually.

Last week, Public Health launched the #nosugaradded campaign to encourage Kern County residents to understand how much sugar they consume and how small changes can improve their health. The department also announced it has hired its first nutritionist in 10 years.

These are important first steps. Health is ultimately the reflection of the decisions individuals make. We will not be a healthier community if individuals and families do not take responsibility for their health.

However, personal responsibility, or the lack thereof, isn’t the lone culprit causing our obesity and health crisis.

According to data from Public Health, Kern County’s highest diabetes death rates are in the 93304, 93306, 93307, 93308 and 93309 zip codes. When you look at the map, it becomes clear that as property values go down, diabetes deaths increase.

Recent research indicates that poverty doesn’t cause obesity. However, we would be foolish to ignore their correlation.

My wife teaches at a Title I school in 93309. The vast majority of her students receive free or reduced lunches. And, many of her students and their parents are either overweight or obese.

About this time last year, my wife had a brilliant idea. Why couldn’t there be a Blue Apron-like meal delivery service that delivers fresh and healthy meals for her students and their families?

If wealthy and technologically savvy Blue Apron customers need help planning and shopping for healthy meals and recipes, her students and their families might benefit even more. The idea was radical and seemed, given the cash that Blue Apron hemorrhages, entirely infeasible.

That was, until the USDA announced plans to consider replacing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e., SNAP, i.e., “food stamps,” with the “America’s Harvest Box.”

I considered recommending my wife for an appointment to the Department of Agriculture.

Then I read past the headlines.

Unfortunately, the image I had of a crate filled with fresh, in-season produce and meats accompanied by meal plans and recipe cards doesn’t match USDA’s proposal for a carton of government picked, non-perishable items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.

Talk about a letdown. I didn’t even know what shelf-stable milk was.

According to White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, the program would not only save the federal government $129 billion over 10 years, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now.

Really? More nutritious food?

“America’s Harvest Box” is a poorly concocted idea that strips needy families of choice and gives more control of their lives to unelected bureaucrats. As Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye wrote in Politico, “Trump’s food stamp idea is like Blue Apron had a socialist hangover.”

We must find ways to increase access to healthy and nutritious fresh foods. It might be one of the most significant steps we can take to address obesity and chronic disease. But America’s Harvest Box is a project in need of a recycle.

Back to Kern County.

We are fortunate to live in the most agriculturally productive county in the nation. We can’t take that for granted. If there’s a hardworking and innovative group who could come up with a way to get more healthy food to more people, let’s start here.

What would “Kern’s Harvest Box” look like?

Earlier this year, I proposed that our community should get in shape. It’s encouraging to see the county of Kern taking leadership to educate the public and move the ball forward.

It’s time we each start pulling our own weight.

Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics, culture and civic engagement; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at Facebook.com/thatjustinsalters, Twitter @justinsalters or justin@justinsalters.com.

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