Good health is vital. The less healthy one is, the less one is able to perform as a private individual in school, work and family, let alone as a public citizen in community and society. The vigor and happiness of individuals, families, communities, societies, indeed the entire world, thus depends on good health. In turn, human health is also impacted by a myriad of factors, from the local food supply to global climate change. These are two major reasons why Learning Life has begun orienting our programming toward health.
Countless pressing public issues are health issues, including bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, depression, loneliness, drug abuse, drunk driving, gun violence, hunger, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, income and wealth inequality, human trafficking, communicable diseases ranging from common cold viruses to deadly Ebola, terrorism, war, pollution, and climate change. As this long yet far from complete list demonstrates, health issues run from violence at home, or bullying in one’s school or neighborhood, to international phenomena like human trafficking, terrorism and climate change. Furthermore, many of these health issues are interconnected and happen in many localities yet they are shaped by big, complicated histories and institutional actors — religious faiths, multinational businesses, national governments, international governmental bodies — whose powerful actions are often invisible and incomprehensible to all but a few trained and paid specialists. Thus, human health is affected by so many issues local to global yet the connections and causes of those issues are dauntingly complex.
Faced with such complex health problems, it is tempting to ignore them. But ironically, the less one knows, the more one is at risk for avoidable health problems (e.g., those less educated are more likely to smoke, take drugs, overeat, etc.) while other health threats, like drunk driving, inequality, and climate change, one can ignore but cannot avoid entirely, if at all. Those who are resource-poor are the least able to avoid many public problems that have health impacts. So, we can either put our heads in the sand, or take action, and Learning Life aims to take action.
Accordingly, in fall 2017, Learning Life began collaborating with the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s (GUSM) Community Health Division. That collaboration helped propel Learning Life’s research this year comparing the health and food cultures of our CDI (Citizen Diplomacy Initiative) families in Washington DC, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Dakar, Senegal (click here for the first study, with further research results coming soon), and our larger family food culture project. Food clearly impacts health, and has the educational advantage of being a universal, daily preoccupation of interest to most people. Food culture — which we define as a group’s food shopping, cooking and eating habits and beliefs — also varies substantially cross-nationally, and can be shaped to advance health and learning about the world. Hence, food culture seems a fitting focus for our project work between CDI families in different countries.
The GUSM Community Health Division, under the leadership of Dr. Kim Bullock, welcomes partnerships with community organizations to help improve community health education while giving Georgetown medical students experience in what the medical profession commonly calls “the social determinants of health” (SDHs). A pie chart (University of North Carolina-Charlotte 2018) often employed to provide U.S. medical students and health professionals with perspective on the determinants of health gives a sense of the importance of SDHs:
As the chart shows, SDHs have the largest impact on people’s health, surpassing individuals’ own actions (diet, exercise, smoking, drug-taking, etc.), and much surpassing a person’s genetics, environment, or medical care resources. The second chart below (Kaiser Family Foundation 2018) unpacks the SDH term, giving a sense of the wide range of SDHs, and hence why these factors, together, matter so much to human health:
The chart underscores that while good or bad health is experienced individually, it is shaped by a range of social factors, some of which, like literacy and language, too many people may not realize are linked to their health. As our world grows more interconnected economically, socially and politically, many of these SDHs are shaped more and more by international forces like trade, immigration and climate change. It thus behooves health educators to frame learning about health in local to global terms.
In the shorter term, the shared challenge of Learning Life and GUSM’s Community Health Division is to improve CDI families’ understanding of health, including nutrition and SDHs, and food culture, wherever they are in the world. In the longer term, we hope to improve the health outcomes of our families worldwide. Much that is good on this Earth takes time and patient work to happen. That is why we are in this for the long haul.
Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life
Kaiser Family Foundation. “Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity.” Chart retrieved from https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/beyond-health-care-the-role-of-social-determinants-in-promoting-health-and-health-equity/ on 9/7/18.
University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “ARCHES Mission & Goals.” Chart retrieved from https://arches.uncc.edu/mission-goals on 9/7/18.