On October first last year, the Northeast TN Southwest VA Food Systems Connectivity Convening took place at Second Harvest Food Bank in Kingsport Tennessee.  More than a hundred people gathered from throughout the region to connect with each other about the ways they work in the food system in our region.  A number of working groups were created on October last year and continue getting together to engage in our food system to bring better health, jobs, and policies to our region.

Doctor Randy Wykoff, Dean, East Tennessee State University College of Public Health, gave the key note speech that day.  His talk is titled Understanding and Improving Health: Lessons from Central Appalachia. He focuses on the vital role that food and food systems play in improving health. Over the last twenty years, we’ve come to learn a great deal more about what it means to be healthy and it’s more achievable than we used to think.  A video of Dr. Wykoff’s 25 minute speech is available, along with other videos, at asdevelop.org/asds-videos.

I’ll take the liberty of summarizing some of Dr. Wykoff’s points here.  In the video, Dr. Wycoff shares with us that the United States of America is the 33rd healthiest country in the world.  He tells us that there are 238 counties that make up the Central Appalachia region.  Central Appalachia includes counties in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio or 3% of the US population.

Wykoff outlines the health status of Central Appalachia and compares it to the United States.  Life expectancy, or how long someone can expect to live, is the most basic measures of health.  He shares some statistics and asks, “Why should someone born in Central Appalachia be more likely to live a shorter life than someone born in most other states and dozens of other countries?  Why are our health statistics so much less than we could achieve.”

He tells us the five factors that contribute to dyeing young and the leading causes of death: Heart disease, Cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder(COPD), Stroke, and unintentional injury or accidents.  What conditions cause us to get these? Genetics, environmental exposure, social circumstance (social determinants of health), health care, but mostly behavioral factors.  He explains that the social determinants of health are mostly what affects health in Central Appalachia.  Things like poverty and education level.  He provides data on poverty and education and explains that these are intimately linked to quality of health and dying at an earlier rate.

How to improve health?  Healthy food! Children who are fed are more prepared for school and learning.  Children who are not fed are twice as likely to be in fair or poor health as children who have enough to eat.  Adults who eat healthy are less likely to have chronic disease.  Many chronic diseases are related to food like heart disease and diabetes.

Summarizing Wykoff, reintroduction of a vibrant agriculture system may be one of the best, most promising economic development opportunities in our region.  People need to be eating healthier.  Food and food systems are the underpinning of everything.  We need to work together to assure access to health care, especially preventative services; encourage healthier behavior; enhance economic opportunity; and assure an abundant supply of safe and healthy food.  I fully agree with Dr. Wykoff’s notion.