Healthy Communities: Making Healthy Choice Easy

Denise Holston, Altazan, Elisabeth A.  |  4/5/2017 2:31:32 PM

According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data of 2012, the U.S. had an adult obesity rate of 28.1 percent while Louisiana had a rate of 34.7 percent. According to these same data, 16 Louisiana parishes had adult obesity rates greater than 40 percent. Obesity places a person at increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, hypercholes-terolemia, and type 2 diabetes. Further, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), living in a rural area puts a person at higher risk for obesity and premature death caused by preventable chronic diseases related to obesity. Higher obesity rates in rural areas are related to physical environment factors, including the availability and access of nutrient-dense foods and safe places to be physically active. In terms of preventative health, changes in individual behaviors must be supported by changes in the environment in which an individual lives, works and plays to be sustainable over time.

To address obesity in rural areas, the CDC awarded the LSU AgCenter a grant in September 2015 to increase physical activity and access to healthy foods in 3 rural parishes with obesity rates exceeding 40 percent: St. Helena, Madison and Tensas. The initiative, Healthy Communities, addresses social and ecological factors of health by encouraging policy, systems and environment (PSE) changes to help make the healthy choice the easy choice. The Healthy Communities initiative uses a community participatory model, allowing the local community to drive decisions on how the funding is used, and to ensure sustainability once the grant is over.

With guidance from the CDC, Healthy Communities focuses on three strategies:

1. Provide education and promotional support to environmental approaches.

2. Implement strategies to increase consumption of healthy food.

3. implement strategies to increase opportunities for physical activity.

To accomplish these strategies, the LSU AgCenter partnered with the Southern University Ag Center, the Louisiana Department of Health and Pennington Biomedical Research Center. These four entities as the state team engaged state-level partners such as the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Center for Planning Excellence, the Capital Region Planning Commission and local community leadership and stakeholders.

The first year of the project focused on needs assessments and collecting baseline data via community forums and asset mapping, coalition capacity building and partner development. The second year is focused on implementing evidence and practice-based interventions surrounding nutrition and physical activity. Interventions are chosen by the parish or town level Healthy Communities Coalitions, which were developed in early 2015. Community partners on these coalitions include elected officials, school board members, school superintendents, health-care representatives, general community members, the Council on Aging, local government representatives, youth, USDA Rural Development representatives, health practitioners and various local nonprofits.

Community coalitions in each parish have begun implementing strategies that include revitalizing recreation facilities, increasing safety for pedestrians and cyclists, adding signage to encourage use of walking and cycling routes, delivering evidence-based educational programs, and beautification efforts in downtown areas.

Other activities include working with schools to implement or update their school wellness policies, developing community gardens and farmers markets, working with local grocers to increase and promote healthy options through in-store marketing and shelving strategies, and providing technical assistance to the community as needed.

To date, Healthy Communities’ successes include the addition of a healthy check-out aisle at Doug’s supermarket in Tallulah, Louisiana, which entails the replacing of unhealthy snacks at the check-out area with healthier options. Tallulah was also selected to participate in Local Foods, Local Places, a program through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s initiative Smart Growth, which provides consulting around using local foods as a driver for economic development in rural area. Two crosswalks were approved in Madison Parish, school gardens were created in Tensas Parish, and a fruit orchard was planted in St. Helena Parish. West Feliciana Parish will start the project in 2017.

Engaging community members from several sectors to guide interventions and policy changes is integral to making a community a more active, healthy environment. For more information about the Healthy Communities Initiative, please contact Denise Holston at 225-578-4573 or Elizabeth Altazan at 225-578-8782.

Denise Holston is an instructor and Elisabeth Altazan is an extension associate in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences.


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Members of the LSU AgCenter-led Healthy Communities coalition are escorted by a St. Helena Parish sheriff’s deputy as they walk along La. 10 in Greensburg during a tour to identify ways to improve nutrition and exercise opportunities in the town on July 11, 2016. Mark Fenton, pointing at left, who is a nationally known public health consultant, joined the group to offer his thoughts. Photo by Olivia McClure

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Stephanie Elwood, right, of the Southern University Ag Center, scoops up soil from a wheelbarrow on Feb. 17, 2017, at the Florida Parishes Campus of the Northshore Technical Community College in Greensburg, Louisiana. Several students from the college helped plant a variety of fruit plants in what will become an orchard that the school culinary program can use. The activity was part of the Healthy Communities initiative, of which the Southern and LSU agricultural centers are both sponsors. Photo by Olivia McClure

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