The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Strawberry Capital of the World is the early death capital of the U.S.: lessons from a landmark dataset

Flats of strawberries in the championship judging tent at the Stilwell Strawberry Festival in Stilwell, Okla., in May. (Frankie Duncan courtesy of Stilwell Kiwanis Club)

In 1949, the Oklahoma legislature proclaimed Stilwell, in the Ozark foothills near the Arkansas border, the Strawberry Capital of the World.

This week, Stilwell earned a more discouraging distinction: It has the lowest life expectancy in the country — just 56.3 years, according to the most detailed local health data ever released by the National Center for Health Statistics.

That means folks there are expected to die 22.5 years — an entire generation — earlier than the comparable national average of 78.8 years.

People living in several wealthier neighborhoods, often in urban areas and suburbs, enjoy life expectancy into their 90s, an illustration of how growing inequality determines fundamental aspects of Americans’ lives and well-being.

“People who live blocks apart can have very different expectations in how long they’ll live because of the conditions in which people are living,” said Donald Schwarz, a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “That represents uneven opportunity for people, particularly children, to have long lives.”

The average life spans in the data set are based primarily on who dies in a neighborhood. They reflect an accumulated lifetime of moving, marrying and working. Changing your address won’t magically add or subtract years from your life, but on average the people who moved to Stilwell, and the people who already lived there, combined, would be expected to die at around 56.3 years of age.

Life expectancy tends to be strongly linked to differences along racial and economic lines. In many cases, someone can be consigned to a dramatically shorter life than a person who lives a few blocks or miles away because of her race or income.

The government partnered with the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information in a three-year effort to calculate life expectancy for 65,662 Census tracts nationwide.

They negotiated agreements with every U.S. state and territory to obtain death data not available to the public and applied sophisticated statistical methodology that was vetted at all levels of the agency.

You can compare your own address or Zip code using the foundation’s interactive search, which is embedded below.

For many Cherokee, the Trail of Tears ended in Stilwell. It’s still part of Cherokee Nation and home to the highest concentration of Cherokee people in the country. The area is 42.2 percent Cherokee and 49.0 percent Native American overall, Census Bureau figures show.

The town is used to being called out in lists such as these. In 2016, Tulsa World reporter Michael Overall wrote that Stilwell was home to “one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Oklahoma” and was emblematic of the state’s rural poverty.

But Stilwell retains an independent identity and sense of community, said Ralph Keen, a 55-year-old lawyer and former member of the Cherokee Tribal Council.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, and there’s a reason for that, Keen said. “It’s because of the people. You will not find a more giving and selfless people than you will right here.”

Much of that identity comes from its Cherokee history — and its strawberries. Just nine acres of strawberries were harvested there in 2012, down from about 2,800 in 1951. But Stilwell’s 71-year-old strawberry festival still anchors the local social calendar and the economy, drawing in 35,000 folks each year.

When the festival’s bandstand needed to be rebuilt, the local Kiwanis club raised $130,000 in less than six months, said Keen, who has just been elected governor of the Kiwanis district that includes Texas and Oklahoma. He added that when the volunteer firefighters asked motorists to “fill the boot” for muscular dystrophy, Stilwell often raised more funds than Oklahoma towns five and 10 times its size.

The region’s rocky, rolling hills make strawberry farming too labor-intensive in an era of mechanized California mega-farms, but Keen described them as “a mecca for deer hunting” and noted that Stilwell is also the proud home of what is believed to be the world’s largest pie factory. A Schwan’s representative said the 630,000-square-foot facility employs about 300 locals, full time, to produce Mrs Smith’s and Edwards pies.

Keen said he wasn’t surprised to hear the area had unusually low life expectancy. He pointed to poor nutrition, obesity, diabetes and substance abuse as the likely culprits.

Schwarz, a former Philadelphia health commissioner, said the availability of quality, affordable food and housing, a safe environment, schools, and health-care systems all influence local life expectancy.

These local health factors are “particularly important” for children, Schwarz said. Life expectancy figures are averages calculated from detailed death rates, and those figures will vary for individuals.

“Plenty of people who grow up in poverty turn out great. Plenty of people who grow up in wealth don’t turn out great,” Schwarz said. “But on average we know that the opportunities for those who grow up in poverty are more limited than the opportunities for people who grow up in wealth.”

The people whose opportunities are limited through accidents of geography tend to fit into narrow categories, many of which show up in national trends. Blacks and Native Americans predominate in many of the neighborhoods at the bottom of the list and have much shorter life expectancy than people of other races and ethnicities.

Stilwell has a large Native American population — and not African American. But it’s otherwise typical of places that rank in the bottom 25 percent for life expectancy.

Those neighborhoods, where people expect to live the shortest lives, consistently meet four criteria: They’re in the bottom 25 percent for income (60.9 percent), they’re less educated (56.7 percent), they’re in the sprawling South Census Region that stretches from Oklahoma to Delaware (52.2 percent), and they’re predominantly black (51.0 percent).

Stilwell’s only real challenger is the West Virginia coal-mining town of Logan. People born there can expect to live an average of 56.9 years, which is within the margin of error. Logan is overwhelmingly white today, but it was, coincidentally, part of the Cherokee’s original homeland before they were displaced by white colonists.

The project shows, within a couple years of statistical precision, just how much life expectancies can vary neighborhood to neighborhood — even within the same county.

The county containing Manhattan Island is home to neighborhoods where residents can expect to live as few as 59 years or as many as 93.6. The counties containing Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; the District; and Buffalo also show spreads of 27 years or more.

Schwarz said many policy decisions are based on neighborhood-level data, but that until now, policymakers had no way to factor health into their analyses. He’s hoping that life expectancy data, which is a broad indicator of overall health, will enable “better conversations” about improving public health and quality of life.

The data set excludes Maine and Wisconsin, which haven’t yet released five years of mappable death data. Counties with too few recorded deaths or residents aren’t included either. Schwarz said they hope to update the data set regularly, though the exact timing of those has not been determined.