Fully accurate or not, life expectancy study a wake-up call for Fort Worth

What is a Food Desert?

Find out what is being done to combat these nutritional wastelands on a trip to Philadelphia with First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2010.
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Find out what is being done to combat these nutritional wastelands on a trip to Philadelphia with First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2010.

It’s a rare opportunity indeed to turn a potential embarrassment into a beautiful opportunity.

But Fort Worth has that chance beginning Saturday.

Word that a new study claiming the city’s southside 76104 zip code has the lowest life expectancy in Texas could have come and gone quickly, a brief mortification for a proud city. The study’s methodology and validity also can and should be questioned, as many in the community and some at City Hall are doing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a little healthy skepticism.

But the report has also inspired a quickly assembled health summit of various stakeholders and city leaders at 10 a.m. Saturday at Pastor Kyev Tatum’s New Mount Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 2864 Mississippi Ave., Fort Worth, Texas. Zip code 76104.

And inspired is just the word for it.

While properly challenging the study’s conclusions — it does come from the highly respected UT Southwestern Medical Center, but no research should go unexamined — in this case, little harm can come from assuming its validity. Especially if the response is to seek ways to make this zip code, and this city, healthier.

Even if the study somehow erred in concluding that life expectancy in 76104 is 66.7 years, compared with the state’s 78.5-year average, it seems to have created a collaboration aimed at helping our fellow residents, especially economically disadvantaged ones, live longer, healthier lives.

What’s wrong with that?

The real question is what to do to accomplish that goal, and who should do it.

It’s a complicated matter involving poverty, discrimination, economic development, government policy, group dynamics and individual responsibility.

And while that last point — individual responsibility — should not be minimized, it must also be said that it’s a lot easier to make healthy choices when healthy choices are within one’s reach. So-called food deserts, where healthy eating options are few and physically far-between, are absolutely real and particularly burdensome for those without personal transportation.

An automotive ad years ago opined that “it’s not just a car, it’s your freedom.” Must access to a car also determine your health?

Considering all this, it will require a comprehensive, long-term approach to make any discernible difference in life expectancies. That likely means government, religious institutions, nonprofits, schools, businesses and more. It means tilling the 76104 soil in such a way that businesses, jobs and grocery stores sprout. It means better public transportation. It means churches, schools and nonprofits teaming up to not only encourage healthy lifestyles but working together to make healthy choices more accessible and affordable.

The soil may need to be tilled literally: Urban gardens, in which neighborhoods share both the labor and the fruits of growing food, have mushroomed across the nation. And interestingly, UT Southwestern assistant professor Sandi Pruitt — who was involved in the life expectancy study and will be at the Saturday summit to explain its findings — is also currently researching the impact of neighborhood-based food pantries in Dallas County.

There’s undoubtedly a role for government in all this, especially with regard to infrastructure and education. But creating a healthy city and culture is everyone’s responsibility.

And, in this case, an opportunity.