Kane Co. may move toward locally grown produce to improve health

Updated 4/16/2013 6:16 PM

Kane County fell from eighth to 12th place in the latest county health rankings, but officials are already planning for a surge back up the charts.

The county board's public health committee dissected the numbers Tuesday. Some suggest the county experienced a negative change in the number of primary care physicians available per county resident. Last year, the ratio was 1,590 to 1, while the new numbers show a ratio of 2,358 patients per physician. Officials said some of the falloff in that ratio, and the overall ranking, may be attributed to the economy.

Near the top of the to-do list will be an emphasis on providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. County officials viewed a presentation by the American Farmland Trust on Tuesday that suggested there is a high demand for locally grown produce. The presentation said the conservation of enough acreage of local farmland for retail crops, such as kale, broccoli and 22 other fruits and veggies, could add $17 million and more than 100 jobs (many of them seasonal) to the local economy. The economic impact would be even greater if enough farmland grew retail crops that could address some of the demand in neighboring counties.

"It's not very much land that could have not only an economic impact, but a public health impact," said Julia Freedgood, managing director of Farmland and Community Initiatives for American Farmland Trust. "There is huge consumer demand for local food."

Representatives from the Northern Illinois Food Bank said they have refocused their nutrition goals on locating fresh produce for the population it serves. The food bank could potentially be one of the larger customers of farmers who grow local produce.

County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen said providing healthy options not just at local farmers' markets but in local grocery aisles will be key to improving local health outcomes. He said the county should also work to develop walkable neighborhoods and promote exercise through the forest preserve district. Numbers show 63.9 percent of Kane County adults are overweight or obese.

"We have a huge budget and lots of talented people (at the forest preserve district)," Lauzen said. "I think they become our No. 1 ally in all of this next to our Jobs Committee."

The county did see better unemployment numbers compared to when it received a better health ranking. But the number of children living in poverty jumped to 19 percent, up three percentage points from the last ranking. There was also an unexplained five percentage point drop in the county's high school graduation rate compared to the last ranking.

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