It’s fast becoming clear that energy and food security belong in the orbit of public health.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maine has one of the highest percentage of households that lack consistent, dependable access to food for healthy living (16.4 percent). They are food insecure.

Further, studies have shown that households experiencing food insecurity are likely to experience energy insecurity as well — they lack access to reliable and continuous supplies of home-heating fuel.

These tandem vulnerabilities render such households more likely to experience poor health outcomes, particularly among infants and small children. Several assessments have shown that vulnerable populations are often forced to decide between essential energy and food needs.

How might we tackle such a public health problem in central Maine? A precedent may be found in the origins of our water security created by the Kennebec Water District, founded nearly 120 years ago. The water district was established very much along the lines of a community cooperative model that was responsive to a public health crisis at the time.

Modern public health generally dates its origins to the bold actions of John Snow, a London physician in the mid-nineteenth century who brought an end to a cholera epidemic by recognizing its source to be a contaminated water supply.

While this event is well known in public health circles, a lesser known public health crisis took place in central Maine only 50 years later.

In the early 1900s, we were in the midst of a typhoid epidemic that Harvard epidemiologists attributed to the contaminated water supply drawn from the Messalonskee Stream. This water supply was controlled by a private company that apparently cared more about profits than health. As stated in the history of the Kennebec Water District, a brilliant young attorney named Harvey Eaton, walking from Oakland to Waterville one evening and seeing the lights in surrounding towns conceived the idea of a community water district, a public entity that no single town in the area could support on its own.

Despite the substantial costs associated with converting the ownership of the water supply from a private to a public entity, communities in central Maine decided to move forward cooperatively in establishing a water district. This was the first in the country, motivated by a civic duty to protect public health. The first president of the water district was Dr. Frederick Thayer, for whom Thayer Hospital was later named. Eaton was counsel for the district.

I do not know what Eaton’s motivations were, yet, given Maine’s social and political climate at the time, particularly with regard to infectious diseases, is it likely that concern for the public welfare was a significant factor. The early years of the 20th century were a time of great belief in the power of collective action to improve the human condition. For example, the progenitor of Maine’s Lung Association, the Maine Anti-tuberculosis Society, was formed at that time, when tuberculosis was the greatest public health threat that our country was facing and the need for a societal response was a high priority. Given this historical context, creating a water district with an underlying public health motivation made sense.

We urgently need to remember those times today. While water security remains a core public health activity, energy and food security also need to be recognized as fundamental public health necessities. We in Maine need not further expose ourselves to such vulnerabilities. We don’t have to rely on the financial volatility of environmentally destructive fossil fuel markets when we have ample renewable energy resources.

Further, we can revitalize our agrarian past toward a goal of ensuring a healthy and reliable food supply for everyone. The establishment of community cooperatives could be a means of achieving these ends. Community cooperatives are not-for-profit business voluntarily owned and controlled by the people who use its services. Cooperatives would help guarantee long-term sustainability for the region as well as bring the profits of such enterprises back to our local community.

Given the passion that drove Eaton to form the Kennebec Water District, I would hope that this modern-day effort at ensuring the protection of public health and the public trust would receive his approving nod.

 

Norm Anderson is a public health scientist and a member of the Public Policy Team for the Sustain Mid Maine Coalition. He lives in Winslow.


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