Leaders, residents and businesses join forces for good health in Covington

With support from leaders, local organizations and small businesses, the people of Covington are imagining a healthy future for their community.

Nancy Costello represents Skyward, one such organization tasked with implementing the MyNKY 2020 regional plan. As part of its mission, Skyward hopes to help 20,000 adults in Northern Kentucky report better health by the year 2020. To help achieve that goal, Skyward introduced LiveWell NKY last year, an initiative designed to encourage healthy behaviors like increased walking and smoking cessation.

Costello believes health is the baseline from which all other productivity and growth flow, which is why Skyward is making it a priority.

In 2016, the United Health Foundation ranked Kentucky 47th out of 50 states with regard to health concerns. The UHF cites smoking, obesity, increased diabetes diagnoses and preventable hospitalizations among ranking criteria. Costello says Covington citizens live with many of those health risks.

“I think as a region we have so many positive things going on, but health is one area where we aren’t strong,” Costello says. “The real work is being done by the community, based on its needs and its capacity. The community voice needs to be the strong voice.”

Empowered communities raise bar for good health

LiveWell facilitated public conversations across Covington and identified three areas of focus: healthy eating, increased physical activity and smoking cessation.

“Covington has one of the highest smoking rates in our state,” Costello says. "LiveWell is working on smoke-free policy changes, as well as connecting with local business owners to strengthen smoke-free policies in the community.”

Programming around these issues is important, but Costello says changing the environment will be the key to sustainable changes.

“Poverty, income and education are the main determinants of health,” she says.

Dr. Patrick Burns, lead physician for St. Elizabeth Primary Care in Covington, agrees that poverty creates all kinds of barriers to resources for good health.

“We can prescribe all the medicine in the world, but people can’t afford it,” he says.

Burns’s practice was recently selected to participate in Medicare’s Community Primary Care Initiative, a program that champions health advocacy — sitting down with patients face-to-face to discuss their health concerns.

He says health advocacy gives patients the space and time to ask questions and raise concerns in a less intimidating environment. In over 30 years of providing health services to the people of Covington, Burns has found patients are much more willing to share personal struggles or gaps in understanding if they have good relationships with their health advocate.

“It’s been dramatic just because we can hone in, and if someone doesn’t have the resources, we help them get in touch,” says Burns.

Brittany Sweeney is a health advocate and nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Covington office. She describes the position as part social worker and part nurse, helping patients with everything from access to food to affordable medication. She interacts with 250 high-risk patients every month to ensure they understand their diseases and are connected to the proper resources.

“I’m a personal nurse for them,” she says. “My patients know they aren’t just going to be another number in a bucket.”

In a free monthly diabetes class, Sweeney presents information on the disease and medications, but the main focus is on eating healthy — even when money is scarce.

“There’s a lack of information and we try to bridge that gap,” she says. “You have to think of food like medicine. You can eat for your disease process on a budget.”

Standing at the corner of nutrition and convenience

The Center's place-based healthy eating marketing efforts feature local school children.Organizations like the Center for Great Neighborhoods are also using food as a platform for Covington engagement and revitalization.

One example of those efforts is Plan4Health, a collaboration between The Center, NKY Health Department, Planning and Development Services of NKY (PDS), and the OKI Regional Council of Governments, which focuses on healthy food policy and food access in Kenton County.

“There’s a lot of chronic diseases linked to nutrition,” says project manager Kate Greene.

As part of Plan4Health, The Center used city data to identify Covington’s income levels, car-less households and food deserts (defined as neighborhoods with no grocery store within a half-mile radius).

Then, four corner stores in Covington were selected to pilot a Healthy Corner Store Initiative that simply involves stocking fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. The Center provided marketing strategies and funding to help the stores purchase proper refrigeration.

Plan4Health "Healthy Buck"Greene says there is evidence the program is working: Three of the four stores are still carrying on the program, and local schools continue to issue “Healthy Bucks” to students that are good for one free piece of fruit from a participating corner store.

Greene hopes The Center’s place-based marketing efforts can entice residents to shop at participating stores and ultimately change the food culture in Covington, but she admits it can sometimes be a struggle.

“It’s hard to change our eating habits,” she says.

Anna Raines, owner and farmer at Rains and Sun Hilltop Farms, is also interested in diversifying the healthy food found in Covington.

“Our mission in farming is to improve the health of our community,” she says. “Basically, the more fruits and vegetables you eat every day, the healthier you’re going to be.”

Raines believes in community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, where community members invest in a farm in exchange for a share of the harvest. Her farm currently shares its crops with 46 families in the neighborhood.

“We would love to continue growing,” says Raines. She eventually wants to see the farm serving low-income populations who aren’t able to participate in a CSA program.

Small businesses collaborate for preventive health

While these and other organizations continue their work toward residential access to healthy food and medicine, Covington's small businesses are getting in on the movement by encouraging physical activity, mindful living and daily self-care.

Julia Martin is the owner of The Flying Cat yoga and healing arts collective in Mainstrasse Village. According to Martin, maintaining a regular yoga practice can improve sleep quality, reduce stress, boost immunity and increase focus.

Julia Martin, Flying Cat “Through yoga, we are able to clarify our intentions for self-care on and off the mat,” says Martin. “The postures in yoga challenge the practitioner to be in an uncomfortable place and work with that through breath and resting when necessary. This is a practice we take off the mat for when we encounter difficult or uncomfortable situations in our day-to-day life.”

The Flying Cat will partner with other Mainstrasse businesses this summer to host a free yoga series on the village’s Sixth Street promenade.

Martin says she didn't plan on bringing the free yoga program back this year, but she was encouraged by her neighborhood’s shift away from bar-centered activities.

“The business owners who supported it in the past saw the need to keep it going and took it upon themselves to host it this year,” she says.

Martin is looking forward to more healthy, community-led, family-friendly events in Covington.

“When people in the community get involved in planning events, they care much more about the experience created. They are invested in the quality of the neighborhood, and that is invaluable to the social and mental health of the local community.”

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.

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Read more articles by Allison Smith Cohen.