Lac qui Parle is Minnesota's healthiest county, according to new health rankings published Wednesday. The southwestern Minnesota county claimed the top spot in the second annual County Health Rankings, which is compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Last year Jackson County, also in southwestern Minnesota, held the top position.
Minnesota's rankings reveal that the healthiest counties tend to be clustered in the southern part of the state, while the least healthy counties are located primarily in northern Minnesota.
The report tracks the overall health of nearly every county in all 50 states by measuring factors such as unemployment, child poverty, birth and disease rates and life span.
Elizabeth Auch is not surprised that Lac qui Parle scored so highly in the report. As administrator of Countryside Public Health, a five-county public health system that includes Lac qui Parle County, Auch sees a lot of folks who live healthy lifestyles. She calls it a "get up and go" ethic.
"A more cultural mindset of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves. I think you see some of that in a rural community," said Auch.
The residents of Lac qui Parle also have some other important health advantages, such as good access to medical care and very low rates of unemployment.
The county has also enacted policies that foster better health. It recently passed a tobacco-free policy prohibiting tobacco use in any county-owned property, vehicle or park.
Other public health campaigns have been widely embraced, too, according to Auch, including those to increase the use of seat belts and reduce drinking among students.
That's not to say that residents' health is perfect. Like much of Minnesota, Lac qui Parle County is trying to rein in an obesity rate that affects well over a quarter of its population.
But in terms of overall health outcomes, the report suggests it's a good place to call home.
"What these data say is that place matters, that where you live does matter," said Ed Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.
Ehlinger says Lac qui Parle's success shows that many factors in the physical, social and economic environment affect a population's health.
"It just says that we need to focus on more than just medical care," he said. "We need to focus on all of the issues related to behavior, and to economics, and social connectedness that really help people be healthy."
Eight of the healthiest counties in Minnesota are located in the southern half of the state, while eight of the least healthy counties are in northern Minnesota.
Cass County, in north central Minnesota, is considered the least healthy county of the 85 that were included in the report.
Cass County is home to the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, a community with significant health challenges including high rates of smoking and diabetes.
The child poverty rate in Cass County is double the rate in Lac qui Parle County. Its teen birth rate in is almost three times higher, and the rate of chlamydia infections is almost four and a half times higher than Lac qui Parle.
Leslie Staker coordinates the Statewide Health Improvement Program for Cass County. She says there are a lot of reasons why Cass County is at the bottom of state health rankings. But she says there are also signs of progress. In the past year, Cass County officials have helped establish three more farmer's markets. And they've created a menu-labeling program aimed at local mom-and-pop restaurants.
"We started working with one individual restaurant in Walker, and we now have seven restaurants that we are working with to create healthy options on their menus, two of which are in implementation -- and they each have menu options that are under 550 calories," she said.
Staker doesn't expect these new initiatives to yield any immediate change in the health of Cass County residents. She says that will take a lot more time and effort.
"I would imagine it could take at least five to 10 years, realistically, because we're talking about policy systems and environmental changes," said Staker. "This takes time to develop. It takes time for people to understand the process."
The Twin Cities metropolitan area had mixed results in the County Health Rankings. Hennepin and Ramsey counties were ranked 48th and 59th respectively for their health outcomes. Carver and Scott counties in the southwest suburbs ranked among the top 10 healthiest counties.