New public health officer in Charles County focuses on west county


Dianna E. Abney is the new acting health officer for Charles County. Improving access to health care in the western part of the county is part of her goal, but “the plan is do things that are innovative, not just bringing in doctors,” she said. (Tin Nguyen/Maryland Independent )

Dianna E. Abney, the new acting director of the Charles County Department of Health, has her eyes on the western part of the county, which she hopes to designate a “health enterprise zone” as part of a plan to combat diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases in an area where medical care is often unavailable.

Up to four of the zones, sharing a total of $4 million, will be established in Maryland under the Health Improvement and Disparities Reduction Act of 2012, which she lobbied for as the county deputy health officer. Western Charles “made the first cut” by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last month. The department expects to hear a final decision by Friday, spokesman William Leebel said.

“My hope is that we will get picked as one of the health enterprise zones,” Abney said. “If we do, I expect we’ll see an improvement in health care” in the area made up of Bryans Road, Indian Head, Nanjemoy and Marbury, a region lacking doctors’ offices and a grocery store.

Improving access to health care is part of the goal, but “the plan is do things that are innovative, not just bringing in doctors,” she said.

Included in the county proposal is having a “wellness coach” at one elementary school in the area. The coach would be available to the community in general, not just students at the school, and teach about healthy living, including exercise and good nutrition, Abney said.

The government can’t bring a large grocery store to the area, but the health department hopes to encourage proprietors of small stores in the region to sell healthy foods, such as produce. The department could send people to do simple demonstrations on using such foods, such as avocados, to boost interest in the new products, Abney said.

Produce also could come straight from the soil, perhaps in schoolyards, where students could get exercise, learn science and appreciate fresh food by cultivating “a big vegetable garden,” Abney said.

“The goal is to make it easier. The western part of the county doesn’t have doctors or grocery stores in its midst. This would give them some of what they need to be healthy,” she said.

County public schools used to have a few community garden programs, including one at Mount Hope/Nanjemoy Elementary, but the federal funding dried up, said Bill Kreuter, supervisor of food services for the school system.

The gardening programs were aimed primarily at educating the children, but some produce made its way into school kitchens, he said. Even without the program, there’s always “a bare minimum of two” fresh fruits and vegetables available at lunch, with salad and baby carrots available every day.

“One of problems with fresh fruits in the school system is that when fresh fruits are in season, school is not in session,” Kreuter said. The school is required to buy its produce, except pineapples and bananas, from U.S. farmers, which can be difficult, especially in the winter, he said.

“We do the best we can to get the kids the most fresh fruits that we can of what’s available,” Kreuter said.

In Indian Head, the most densely populated area in the western part of the county, the lack of a grocery store forces people without cars to take long bus rides to reach stores or to shop at convenience stores without many healthy options, Mayor Dennis J. Scheessele said.

“Some of them were shopping at CVS, in the limited groceries that CVS had,” he said. “Now that’s not even here, so they’re either shopping at Dash In, or having to use VanGo or something to get to Bryans Road or La Plata. It’s certainly a hardship in terms of diet. As you can well expect, you don’t get a broad spectrum or variety, and certainly don’t get fresh produce at a Dash In.”

Residents would eat healthier food if it were available at local stores, said Scheessele, who helped draft the health enterprise zone application.

Health also would improve if doctors were available in the town, something he hopes the health enterprise zone would bring. Scheessele submitted a list of possible locations for a doctor’s office in the town, because the lack of primary care “adversely, obviously . . . affects a lot of people that don’t get health care or preventative care. [They] don’t get it period, or don’t get it soon enough to avoid a more serious visit to the urgent care in Bryans Road or even a lot of emergency room visits to La Plata.”

Some services already are available at the Nanjemoy Community Center, a county government facility. A nurse visits twice a month to answer “minor health questions” and do simple checks, and a volunteer with the University of Maryland Extension Service does a monthly presentation about healthy eating, said Meg Romero, who runs the center. There also is a small fitness center that is open on weekdays.

Many Nanjemoy residents deal with the lack of grocery stores by growing — and sometimes sharing — their own food, Romero said.

“There are many people who grow their own produce, vegetables, whether it’s a small garden in their back yard or they have a larger-scale farm,” Romero said. “On occasion, we’ve had people in the area who had a bumper crop and brought it into the community center. I think it’s been potatoes, onions, those types of things. That’s not an all-the-time thing. It’s occasional, few and far between, but it’s always appreciated. . . . Everybody needs fresh vegetables.”

The center would welcome other organizations, such as the health department, offering more services in the region, whether at the community center or another building, Romero said.

“I’m sure it would be well received and appreciated,” she said.

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