Parks and Recreation, Public Health and Pawnee

In the midst of all the wall-to-wall coronavirus news, here at the Public Health Insider, tonight’s reunion episode of the TV show Parks and Recreation to benefit Feeding America is just what we need. Even though the show is about a fictional parks and recreation department, it was laced with public health issues season after season. The steady jokes about public health made us feel seen

We also love Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), the deputy director of the Pawnee, Indiana parks department. We relate to her irrepressible optimism that her tireless work in local government, despite the many obstacles, will make her town a better place. 

So in eager anticipation of seeing our friends from Pawnee again, we picked some of our favorite public health episodes of Parks and Rec. Neither of the two episodes featuring the flu made the cut as they included some truly deplorable health habits (Andy Dwyer sneezing all over the office space, Leslie refusing to stay home despite dehydration-driven delirium—and licking objects in the office in defiance of her co-workers). Fortunately, there were many others to choose from. Here are our top five.

Soda Tax (Season 5, Episode 2)

Determined to lower the levels of childhood obesity in Pawnee, Leslie and her best friend, Ann Perkins (nurse and sometimes communications director for the health department) introduce a bill to put a tax on soda. 

Highlight: In a meeting with a representative of the soda industry, Leslie points to a 512 ounce “child-sized” soda cup.

Leslie: “How is this a child-sized soda?”

Soda rep: “Well, it’s roughly the size of a two-year-old child, if that child were liquefied. And a real bargain at $1.59.” 

Fluoride (Season 6, Episode 8)

When Leslie introduces a plan to add fluoride to Pawnee’s drinking water, she is blindsided by the opposition, led by her nemesis, City Councilor Jeremy Jam (a dentist who depends on cavities as a revenue stream). 

Highlight: Parks employee Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) convinces her that fluoride is in need of a rebranding campaign: “Welcome to T-Dazzle. It’s not a chemical. It’s an aquatic-based social media oral experience.”

Sex Education (Season 5, Episode 4)

This is really a two-fer episode that covers more than one public health issue.

Public Health issue 1: STD prevention. Leslie and her team lead a seminar about safe sex in the midst of a chlamydia epidemic among senior citizens in Pawnee, only to find out that there is an abstinence-only sex education law. 

Highlight: Leslie Knope faces censure after tossing condoms to the seniors, and is labeled as “Loosely Grope” in Pawnee’s media.

Link to Public Health In the Real World: Our Sexual Health Clinic remains open to provide health care services, including STD testing.

Public Health issue 2: Distracted driving. Tom Haverford has to go a week without electronic devices and social media after he crashes his car while tweeting.  

Highlight: As evidence, the court presents Tom’s tweets that preceeding his crash:

“Four green lights in a row. #blessed”

“Drive faster, Honda Civic.Daaaaamnn. #soccermoms”

“Gotta pass this lady on the ejkerkj”

Farmer’s Market (Season 6, Episode 12)

Leslie opens  the first farmer’s market to help improve nutrition in Pawnee. But her happy achievement is marred when a chard vendor promotes his vegetables with appearances by the racy “Chard Bodies” dancers.

Highlight: A Pawnee local holds up a stalk of broccoli with wonderment: “Look at this tiny tree. Can you eat this?” 

Link to Public Health In the Real World: Farmer’s markets are beginning to open for business in King County, with social distancing measures, making farm-fresh produce more available. The Fresh Bucks program can extend purchasing power at farmer’s markets for those on a tight budget. Note: there will be no scheduled appearances by the Chard Bodies dancers at any King County farmer’s market.

Emergency Response (Season 5, Episode 13)

While trying to throw a gala to save her beloved Pawnee Commons project, Leslie is summoned to participate in a surprise emergency preparedness drill. The scenario: pandemic avian flu. She realizes that she’s been “jammed” by her arch enemy, City Councilor Jam, who is determined to foil her fundraiser. To make the gala in time, she finds the most expedient way to end the emergency drill: by ensuring that all the virtual citizens of Pawnee get infected and die from the fake flu. There must’ve been one heckuva after-action report.

Link to Public Health In the Real World: It’s not flu, and it’s not a drill, but we have a lot of information for our emergency response to the current pandemic on our newly revamped COVID-19 website.

Treat Yo’ Self (and help others)

How well will our friends in Pawnee deal with a real pandemic in a fictional town?  We know Ron Swanson will be fine , but how will Leslie Knope cope with social distancing? We’ll be watching–a little humor is a needed stress relief right now.

And please consider some real relief for our communities by giving to their fundraising efforts with Feeding America or to the many emergency food access resources who need our support in King County.  

Originally published on April 30, 2020.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.