U.S. News & World Report recently included Island County among its Healthiest Communities Honor Roll. Counties across the nation were placed in peer groups and compared to other similar communities based on urban or rural status and economic performance.
The honor roll comprises the top performing communities in each peer group within different geographic divisions. Island County ranked first in its peer group, 26th on the 36-county honor roll, and 257th overall.
The county was placed in the “urban, up-and-coming” peer group; the analysis designated counties with at least 20 people per square mile as urban. The ranking assessed population health, equity, education, economy, housing, food and nutrition, environment, public safety, community vitality and infrastructure. Island County scored highest in public safety, environment, and food and nutrition.
“It’s a reminder where we end up on that scale has a lot to do with personal choice, ” Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman said. “And we live in healthy community, which is good news.”
The county’s low smoking rate, high rate of insurance coverage, and low rate of adults with no “leisure-time physical activity” were all strong contributors to the high ranking. The county’s obesity prevalence of 27.2 percent was below the 31 percent U.S. average. Island County boasted a ratio of 14.3 local food outlets — which includes farmers markets — per 100,000 population; the national median was 4.9.
“I think we do a lot on Whidbey to promote agricultural activities and growing our own food and selling the food in local market places,” Higman said, noting he couldn’t speak as much for Camano because he doesn’t live there. “When you think about where your food is coming from, it leads to better health outcomes.”
The county health department uses programs like Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, to educate mothers about diet and nutrition, he said. With Whidbey’s small-farm focus, there is also plenty of access to farmer’s markets and local organic produce. Higman stressed that there are many factors involved in health, only a few of which his department has any part in.
“We are a very small piece of a large set of variables that affect people’s health,” he said.
The landscape and weather of the area were additional contributors to Island County’s high ranking. More than 24 percent of the population lives within a half mile of a park, which is above of national median of 14.6 percent. An average of zero instances of extreme-heat days also was measure used in the analysis.
The report assessed public safety based on factors such as per capita spending on police and fire protection, which at $313.,Island County sat above the national median of $239. The safety score also included a low violent crime rate of 131.9 per 100,000 of population verses 200 per 100,000 nationally.
Areas in which the community ranked lower included education and housing. Per-pupil expenditures and high school graduation rates both fell below the national median. The education score also included preschool enrollment, which at 38.5 percent was lower than U.S. and state medians. The county’s rate of youth not working or enrolled in school was at 4.1 percent, which was well above the U.S. median of 2.9 percent and state rate of 2.8 percent.
Housing affordability represented one of the lowest scores for Island County. Almost 35 percent of the population was considered housing cost burdened, meaning spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
The analysis reported a worker in Island County would need to work more than 60 hours a week earning average wages to afford a one-bedroom rental unit without being cost burdened.
A different county health ranking performed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation placed Island County fourth among counties in the state. Higman said positive health outcomes are largely determined by genetics, behavior and environment. Because there isn’t anything that can be done about genetics, his department mostly focuses on behavior to promote health.
“It’s not all about winning, it’s about encouraging people to have a healthy life,” he said of the two rankings. “Most of health is a matter of people making good decisions.”