BARRE — The Hunger Council of Washington County and health officials met Thursday to discuss a new statewide strategy that addresses food as medicine to stay healthy. Hunger and poor diet have been identified as significant health risks, and members of the council — one of 10 regional councils under the umbrella of Hunger Free Vermont — meets regularly to find ways to improve access to food and good nutrition to improve health outcomes. Poor diet — along with lack of exercise and smoking — have been listed as three behaviors that lead to four health conditions: cancer, heart disease and stroke, Type 2 diabetes and lung disease. Those are responsible for more than 50 percent of deaths in Vermont, and form the basis of a formula known as “3-4-50.” That cause-and-effect correlation was reflected in a Vermont Health Department study presented at the Hunger Council meeting at Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre. All the behavioral causes of death are preventable but will contribute $2 billion a year in health care costs in Vermont this year, noted Joan Marie Misek, who works in the health department’s Barre office. Misek said behavioral patterns such as diet, exercise and smoking account for 40 percent of risk factors to good health, followed by genetics (30 percent), social circumstances (15 percent), access to health care ( 10 percent) and environmental exposure (5 percent). “As you can see, individual behavior is the most common determinant of health,” said Misek. Social circumstances that impact health include education, employment, income, family and social support, and community safety, the report noted, while environmental exposure in the natural and manmade environment includes air and water quality, housing, access to open spaces, and transportation, the report notes. The study broke down behavioral risks for the state and Washington County, and the two showed almost identical patterns: three-quarters of both populations did not eat the-recommended-five-servings of fruit and vegetables a day, about 40 percent did not get recommended physical activity, and 18 percent smoked. The numbers of adults statewide and in Washington County who were diagnosed with and died from chronic disease were also almost identical. Deaths in the four major disease categories were: lung disease (6 percent), diabetes (2-3 percent) cardiovascular disease (22-26 percent), and cancer (24-26 percent). Misek said the findings showed that changes in behavior could dramatically change health outcomes for many people. “Knowing that behaviors are the largest determinant of our health provides us with a really grand opportunity for us, as service providers and community organizations, to have a big impact on supporting people’s good behaviors and creating environments that will help them make healthy choices and stick to and follow those healthy choices,” Misek said. However, Misek noted that the bottom of the “health pyramid” with the largest negative impact on health outcomes included socioeconomic factors — poverty, education, housing and inequality — that were difficult areas to improve. “These are massively important and they have a huge impact on our health, but it’s a very complex world and for our organization we may be limited in how we can address those factors,” Misek said. For many of organizations that support access to food and good nutrition, Misek’s presentation and the report only served to reinforce the importance of their mission and goals. There was both good and bad news on efforts to sustain funding for food programs that affect children, schools, the elderly, and low-income people and families. At the federal level, a representative for Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was fighting the Trump administration, which might cut $140,000 funding to community block grants that would affect Meals on Wheels services to 1,600 elderly Vermonters, and also cut the federal Women, Infants and Children program that provide food assistance. On a positive note, Faye Conte, advocacy and education director for Hunger Free Vermont, said there is strong support in the Legislature for the S.33, a Farm-to-School bill to add grant funding to school programs that support local agriculture. That bill has passed the state Senate and is pending in the House. stephen.mills

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