Kansas Extension Agents Initiating Public Health Efforts

Manhattan, Kan. — Public health – often – is taken for granted.
No matter where humans live, work, learn or play, many expect that they will have an equal opportunity to be healthy.
Kansas State University extension agents Tristen Cope and Clara Wicoff know, however, that is not always the case. They’re part of a group of 25 extension professionals in the north-central part of the country that is taking a long look at health in America’s communities – and what they can do to encourage equal access for all.
“More broadly,” says Cope, the family and youth development agent for the Chisholm Trail Extension District, “we are looking at the community base for health, organizations, and the policies that support health at the local, state and federal level.”
Many associate a community’s health with the availability of doctors, health care businesses and other medical providers. But public health includes such factors as having access to grocery stores; safe water to drink and air to breathe; and even trails for exercise.
Earlier this year, national health experts and representatives of U.S. land-grant universities released a report titled, Cooperative Extension’s National Framework for Health Equity and Well Being, which provides a framework for improving health and achieving health equity in America.
Further, it helps local extension agents identify the ways that they can more effectively lead their communities around barriers to health.
“One of my biggest projects is tackling the childcare crisis,” Cope said, noting that Marion County meets just 31% of the need for childcare, and neighboring Dickinson meets 50% of the need.
“We have community members calling in saying they can’t find anywhere to take their child so that they can go to work. This has become a work force issue. We’re working to bring more providers together, establishing more centers and supporting the work force. We’ve been able to get more local government involvement because of its impact on the work force and the (county’s) ability to bring new individuals to live in the county.”
Wicoff, who serves Woodson, Allen, Bourbon and Neosho counties as part of the Southwind Extension District, is helping local communities address food insecurity, having formed partnerships with farmer’s markets, a food bucks program and coalitions that promote food access to people of all backgrounds.
“If people don’t have their basic needs met, it’s really difficult for them to benefit from what we’re offering in extension,” Wicoff said.
Cope notes that, in her case, meeting the need for childcare affects a community’s economic stability and the child’s education.
“If those two areas are not being met, it sets up a greater challenge for later life development,” she said. “Childhood is such an essential time; it’s when 90% of your learning is happening. When everyone does not have access to early learning, that becomes a social determinant of health that then becomes a public health issue.”
Cope and Wicoff were selected to participate in an 18-week course titled Public Health Essentials, aimed to increase their public health competence. The program is sponsored by the National 4-H Council with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
More information about community health, including efforts that may be underway in your community, is available from local extension offices in Kansas.