How a Low Ranking on Health Mobilized Wyandotte County, Kansas

March 21, 2011

Wyandotte County, Kansas has made significant strides toward achieving public health since it finished in the bottom of the 2010 Kansas County Health Rankings.

The study looked at multiple factors that affect health, including access to care, behaviors like smoking, environmental factors like clean air, and socio-economic factors like poverty and found Wyandotte County, which includes Kansas City, to be the least healthy of 105 counties in the state. The county had high levels of violent crime and unemployment, deteriorating neighborhoods and a high percentage of families, including children, living below the poverty line.

When he saw how badly his county was doing, Mayor Joe Reardon created a Healthy Communities Initiative and tapped other county officials and stakeholders—including business leaders – to form a steering committee aimed at action in five areas: community relations, education for a healthy community, healthy environmental infrastructure, healthy food and health services.

“The County Health Rankings, for me as mayor, gave me a framework, a way to look at the community as a whole,” Reardon said. “And as Mayor I want to grow this community. I want it to be the best community it can possibly be."

"The County Health Rankings were a call to me to say, ‘You’re not going to be the best community you can be if you don’t focus on the health of your community.’”

The Mayor’s initiative is off and running, looking for ways to solve the social, economic and behavioral factors that are shaping the health of people in Wyandotte by studying other successful community programs, such as Educare, a national early childhood learning program that focuses on boosting language skills for low-income children; Promotores de Salud, a home visiting program that sends trained volunteers into the community to practice highly targeted health education outreach; and Sun Fresh, the first new grocery store to locate in the lower-income Prescott neighborhood in 35 years, saving urban residents from trekking across town to find fresh produce for their families.

“It is important to understand that the Healthy Communities Wyandotte initiative is sustained and propelled by the efforts and commitment of local leaders,” said Caitlin McMurtry, an analyst at the Kansas Health Institute, which helped launch the mayor’s initiative. She said the group has big plans for 2011, including the adoption of a county-wide Complete Streets policy.