26 August 2010

Obesity still weighing on York County

The York Daily Record/Sunday News has been devoting a lot of pages to chronicling York County's ongoing weight struggles. "Fat Battleground" started with a story that explored the fact that York is one of the most obese counties in the state. Other stories have covered how and why we get fat, and future stories will focus on solutions.

YorkCounts cares about this because obesity was one of the 38 indicators we tracked in our 2009 report. Depending on which numbers you look at, the county's obesity rate is somewhere in the range of 25 to 35 percent, meaning that anywhere from a quarter to a third of adults qualify as obese. In our numbers, which come from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the rate has hovered around 25 percent. The Healthy York County Coalition, which has been monitoring the health of York County every three years since 1994 through Community Health Assessments, reported numbers fluctuating between 26 percent and 39 percent. All the numbers show us falling short of HYCC's target of reaching 20 percent by the year 2000.

In 2009, YorkCounts and HYCC, along with a small group of community stakeholders, held some preliminary meetings on developing a comprehensive strategy for bringing the numbers down. The reasons for doing so are well established: obesity's the connection to a range of chronic illnesses, the loss of quality of life, the higher costs of medical care and insurance.

The meetings didn't get beyond the preliminary stage for various reasons. But these York Daily Record stories show that a serious public health problem remains. First Lady Michelle Obama brought childhood obesity to the national spotlight earlier this year. Businesses continue to be plagued with soaring health care costs, due partly to overweight employees.

York city recognized the connection between obesity, public health and quality of life when it became an ACHIEVE community this year. ACHIEVE is a national program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that supports communities working to "develop and implement policy, systems, and environmental change strategies that can help prevent or manage health risk factors" related to a range of chronic health conditions, including obesity

The city is the driving force for ACHIEVE, and obesity and its related problems are slightly more pronounced in the city, but the effort surely can be connected to broader action to reduce obesity countywide. That would mean using amenities such as the Heritage Rail Trail County Park to connect walking paths and bike routes to popular downtown destinations. It would mean giving thought to pedestrian access in the site design of economic development projects.

And that's just a start. Other players would include the schools and day-care facilities, which play a huge role with the food choices that offer to children. Fitness-oriented organizations such as the YMCA and the YWCA would be involved. The fledgling York County Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter could be involved as a way to put more locally grown fruit, vegetables and meats in front of local consumers.

What do you think? What should a comprehensive community strategy for reducing obesity look like? Feel free to weigh in with your opinions here.

An update, 9:30 a.m. 8/27:
After this post went up, I heard from Cori Strathmyer, wellness coordinator at the YMCA of York and York County. Cori is a member of the 14-person team working on the community-health effort. She said while the program has a city focus intially, the plan is to take what works in the city and eventually use it as a model throughout the county. And while they are part of the CDC's ACHIEVE program, they are branding the effort under the banner "Eat Play Breathe York." We say: "Go, Eat Play Breathe!" Here's their Web site: http://www.achievecommunities.org/YorkPA/Pages/default.aspx. You can read all of what she said in the comments section.

And a correction:
In the August e-newsletter that went out this week, I detailed the town hall meetings YorkCounts and the York-Adams Regional Smart Growth Coalition were doing, in partnership with the York County Economic Development Corp. and the York County Planning Commmission. If you clicked on the link from the newsletter to the information about the meetings, you might have seen an incorrect e-mail address to register. The correct address is: shanna@yorkadamssmartgrowth.org.

- Dan Fink

16 August 2010

Thoughts on suburban blight

The Lancaster Sunday News published a story about blight Sunday, but it took a different approach. It wrote about Columbia Avenue to the west of Lancaster. Folks from York County might know that stretch of road as Route 462.

This is suburbia. Except it's not the sparkling suburbia of new developments and power centers with huge big-box retail and fancy chain restaurants. This is 50-year-old suburbia, home of the county's first McDonald's and various strip shopping centers. And it's in pretty bad shape.

Between Stone Mill Road and Rohrerstown Road, a distance of less than a mile, are at least 11 vacant buildings or empty storefronts. Some are in deteriorating condition. Weeds peek through cracked pavement even at sites that are open for business.
And how did this happen?

David Schuyler, a professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College, offered a quick summation:
Suburbs supplanted cities; now newer suburbs supplant older ones, and the Columbia Avenue corridor is experiencing "the same difficulties — loss of long-standing anchor tenants, the leasing to lesser, more transient businesses, the 'for lease' signs, and declining property values — that afflicted downtown in the 1950s and 1960s," Schuyler said.
This hard-to-fight trend is only part of the problem. Another difficulty lies in the fact that local officials are limited in how they can respond. The story also suggests that they don't work together effectively across municipal boundaries to do regional planning.

In part because the road straddles two different municipalities, a plan is hard to come by. In addition, said John May, a Manor Township supervisor, suburban officials have few tools to tackle vacancies and blight.

"We watch this closely at the township, but there is little we can do if there is no nuisance or threat to health, safety and welfare," May said. "It is hard to watch as this Columbia Avenue corridor slowly wastes away."
This shows clearly how older communities suffer because of the current government policies related to development and zoning. And that was one of the main points for the recent Building One Pennsylvania Conference. Because until policy makers in Harriburg understand that there are hundreds of suburban townships across the state experiencing the same kind of decline, conditions will not change. And more corridors will slowly waste away.
- Dan Fink

13 August 2010

This meeting should be good for your health

Aligning Forces for Quality of South Central Pennsylvania, a community coalition working to improve health and health care in York and Adams counties, will hold its second annual meeting Sept. 16 at the Holiday Inn, 2000 Loucks Road, York.

The coalition, which includes more than two dozen members from health care, business and nonprofit organizations, will use the event to highlight its recent work. Expect to hear updates on:
The coalition is working on an ambitious, multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to improve the quality of life in York County by addressing a range of health and health care issues, and YorkCounts encourages all of its supporters to attend.

The evening will also feature a keynote speaker, a networking period and a question-and-answer session. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. with a light buffet dinner. Advance registration, due by Sept. 9, is encouraged. For details or to register, contact Joyce Ortiz at 801-4830 or jortiz@wellspan.org.

- Dan Fink

05 August 2010

Not another test, please

Last year, YorkCounts hosted a meeting about and sent a letter of support for the proposed Keystone Exams. Today, our intern Itzy Otterbein offers a different view. Itzy will be a senior in high school, and the opinions expressed here are hers, not YorkCounts.

Pennsylvania is initiating a new series of tests referred to as the Graduate Competency exams. The tests, also known as the Keystone Exams, will be used as exit exams to measure seniors’ competency and their ability to survive in the real world. As a soon-to-be senior in high school, I have to ask one question:

Do we really need one more test?

Think about it. During a student's high school career, the average student will take around 240 tests, assuming six classes with 10 tests per class times four years. That means that their knowledge and general know-how will be assessed 240 times. This does not include the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests (PSSAs), which are designed to test students’ comprehension of major subjects in third through eighth and 11th grade. Students who do not pass the PSSAs with proficient or above are remediated in order to move on to the next grade. Pennsylvania already has a system of assessment in place along with the basic testing in school. Student’s who can, on average, pass tests will pass their classes and in turn, receive the high school student’s Holy Grail… the diploma. So if the student’s abilities are tested throughout their schooling career, why should they be pressured with once and done, in or out, pass or fail exit exams? If the student has advanced to their senior year and passed all of their required classes, must their graduation rely on one huge, frightening series of test?

Imagine your entire high school career culminating with one large test on each main subject that will, in essence, determine the fate of your schooling. In the coming years, these standardized tests, known as Graduate Competency exams, appear likely to become a reality. In the year 2014, each student would be required to take 10 exit exams. The student's score on the exit exams would be put in the grade book as one third of the student's final grade.  Students who fail to pass the test in even one subject area would probably not graduate and would have to come back for an additional year of school. Had they applied to college and been accepted, they would also lose their place and have to reapply the next year. This may have an adverse effect and discourage students from attending college.

I, personally, have never been a great test taker. In my school grade books, you can often see a trend of high A's on homework, class work, and small quizzes, but often B’s and maybe C’s on large tests. This is true for many students. While test are obviously a necessity to assess a student’s understanding, they can also be misleading. It isn’t fair to let one final series of tests prevent an otherwise qualified student from graduating.

Jim Rhoades, a former state Sen. and principal who passed away in 2008, agreed. “A high school diploma is an accumulation of 12 years of tests, quizzes and homework,” Rhoades told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Twelve years of gym classes and research papers; 12 years of getting along with other students. We're going to tell our students, our teachers and our schools that those 12 years don't really matter, that the effort ... wasn't really worth it.”

There is a feeling of unease in Pennsylvania because many people believe that too many of my fellow classmate and others who have graduated before us are unprepared for college or jobs. If this is true, why have the students been advanced through the grades? Perhaps, instead of adding another unnecessary test, the government should ensure that students are receiving the proper education throughout their schooling and are not simply being pushed to the next grade if they are not ready. The PSSAs already assess students. Students who are in 12th grade have passed these assessments or been remediated until they could. There should be no reason that a 12th grader who completes his or her courses with passing grades should not be prepared for the real world.

Do we need to spend the money on these exit exams that will help to standardize America when students are already being tested for proficiency by other government tests throughout their schooling? Should the government test each student’s academic level when it has been tested over and over again for the past 12 years by their teachers and administrators? This brings me back to my very first question…

Do we really need one more test?

Join the conversation and tell me what you think.

- Itzy Otterbein

Itzy Otterbein will be a senior at Eastern York High School. She participated in Leadership York's Future Leaders of York program and is working on her Girl Scouts' Gold Award at the Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education. She is interning with YorkCounts this summer.

02 August 2010

Hear the latest on rate caps

There's still plenty of uncertainty about what's going to happen when the caps on electricity rates come off. A story from the York Dispatch reports the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has changed its forecast for what will happen when Met-Ed lifts its caps, with less of a spike expected. That's good news. But it's far from the final word.

So this event, from the York/Adams Regional Smart Growth Coalition, figures to be helpful. The smart growth group will host "Expiration of the Electric Rate Caps: What York and Adams County Homeowners Need to Know" at 6 p.m. Aug. 3 (that's tomorrow) at Heritage Hills Golf Resort & Conference Center, 2700 Mount Rose Ave., York.

The discussion will cover energy deregulation, Act 129, state funding programs, alternative energy choices and a primer on conservation. There will also be a service provider fair. The event is free, and there is still time to register. Contact Shanna Wiest at 717-880-1230 or shanna@YorkAdamsSmartGrowth.org to register.

- Dan Fink