ELKHART — Elkhart County’s residents do not have a perfectly clean bill of health, but a new study suggests that the county is making strides in the right direction.
Elkhart County is the 14th healthiest county in Indiana, according to a recent report released by the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Researchers have been tracking the health of citizens from coast to coast for four years, and Elkhart County has seen improvement in its standing. Elkhart County held steady at 19th place out of Indiana’s 92 counties in 2011 and 2012. In 2010, the county ranked as the 18th healthiest in the state.
Hamilton County topped the list of healthiest places in Indiana, followed by Hendricks and Boone counties. The least healthy parts of Indiana were Scott, Crawford and Fayette counties. Areas surrounding Elkhart County were scattered throughout the list. LaGrange County to the east was named the fifth healthiest county in the state, Kosciusko County to the south ranked 27th and St. Joseph County to the west landed close to the middle in 43rd place.
KEEPING UP THE PACE
Yes, Elkhart County edged up in Indiana’s health ranking, but there is still plenty of work to be done, county health officer Daniel Nafziger pointed out.
“I would hate to see us get complacent because we scored relatively high in terms of not having premature deaths in the county, but we still have 21 percent of the population that’s smoking and 29 percent of adults who are obese,” he said. “We need to continue to work on those things that we know in the end are going to have an impact on our health outcomes.”
One of every four adults in Elkhart County reported that they do not exercise in their free time, Nafziger noted.
“Those things are going to catch up with us if we don’t continue to make progress,” he said.
Though Nafziger said he does not take credit for significant shifts in the county’s health ranking, some of the improvements mirror efforts of the state and county health departments.
“I think the state has done the right thing in putting through the smoking ban, and that’s certainly something as a health department we’ve advocated for,” Nafziger said. “We continue to offer education programs and smoking cessation classes that have the ability to impact those numbers. Tobacco is a terrible addiction in terms of a habit to break, so I expect that progress would be slow, but I would also hope that we’re continuing to do some primary prevention in terms of having folks out in the schools talking to kids about why they don’t want to get started smoking in the first place.”
BUILDING UPON PAST EFFORTS
It’s not just diet, exercise and other healthy habits that score counties points in the statewide ranking. The study also analyzed poverty rates among children and education as well as other social and economic factors.
Using data from the 2010-2011 school year, the study showed that 86 percent of Elkhart County students graduated high school after four years. Just a few years earlier, the graduation rate was 68 percent.
“I think we’ve been more proactive in recent years,” said Diane Woodworth, superintendent for Goshen Community Schools.
Woodworth said she spent the past year as superintendent working with local educators to fine tune strategies for teaching children and enhancing the district’s alternative education programs. But progress is not confined to classrooms, she noted.
“I think the economy in our county and society has helped get the message to kids that they need to stay in school,” she said. “I think parents and the entire community have helped with that.”
In Elkhart, Rob Haworth is closing in on his first year as district superintendent. He attributes many of the improvements in education to the hard work of past superintendents and administrators. His mission now is to build on those successes.
“If you were to visit Memorial High School or Central High School, you would see a great deal of relationship building among school principals and counselors,” Haworth said. “I think you would see a distinct connection between school and career and more discussions that talk to the importance of having a high school diploma and where that can take you in terms of your post-secondary hopes and dreams.”