(07/25/23) BATON ROUGE, La. — The LSU AgCenter is receiving $4.02 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the five-year High Obesity Program (HOP). The program funds universities working with local cooperative extensions in mostly rural counties where 40% or more of adults have obesity.
The funding will allow the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities team to address health disparities related to nutrition, physical activity and obesity in 12 rural parishes. The team will be building on successes from the 2018-2023 funding cycle in six parishes (Assumption, East Carroll, Madison, Morehouse, St. Helena and Tensas) as well as expanding efforts into six additional parishes (Catahoula, Claiborne, St. Martin, Terrebonne, Washington and Winn).
“You can’t address obesity prevention until you address food access and health disparities around food access,” said Denise Holston, AgCenter nutrition specialist and Healthy Communities principal investigator.
The Healthy Communities and High Obesity Program has been working for eight years to improve access to healthful foods and opportunities for physical activities with the aim at improving overall health outcomes of residents in rural communities.
Jocinda Jackson-Jones oversees the High Obesity Program in East Carroll and Morehouse parishes. She doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to programming in the two parishes. In East Carroll, the emphasis is more on physical activity. In Morehouse, where sidewalks and crosswalks are more prominent, she focuses on food systems.
“Walkability in Morehouse is much better versus Lake Providence,” Jackson-Jones said. “In East Carroll we have a lot of sidewalks that don't connect and a lot of areas that don't have sidewalks at all.”
LSU AgCenter agents working in the communities conduct extensive assessments and audits to see what the immediate needs of the communities are and what are the best ways to address them.
In East Carroll the program has helped add physical activity signage to walking trails, is adding new playground equipment at a park and started an annual “Walk-a-Mile Day” to bring awareness to moving more.
In the two years Jackson-Jones has been with the High Obesity Program, she has seen behavioral changes in her community.
“We actually see a lot more people out on the track walking, and we've even seen where people have formed walking groups and they all come out there on certain days and exercise,” she said.
In Morehouse, she has worked with food pantries to improve refrigeration and shelving. The program has helped start community gardens and held food tasting and cooking demonstrations.
Other past Louisiana High Obesity Program successes include working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to make complete streets funding more accessible for small rural communities; supporting farmers markets and market match programs to make fresh, local produce more accessible; partnering with local food pantries to establish nutrition standards and increase their capacities to store and serve healthy food; and hosting a biennial statewide Charitable Food Summit to create a more resilient network of support for Louisiana residents experiencing food insecurity.
Agents and parishes included in 2023-2028 funding cycle include:
Jamila Freightman, the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities Program manager, said the additional parishes were chosen for readiness to implement health and wellness policy changes in their communities.
“We wanted to work in parishes that we could see were ready to move forward with this type of work. You know, particularly since this grant is focused on policy implementation, so we wanted the parishes to have an established a coalition,” Freightman said.
With the inclusion of Terrebonne Parish, the program, traditionally implemented in rural communities, is expanding into the urban area of Houma. Holston said many of the communities in the program are rural and considered food deserts, but urban areas have their own nuances and can be considered food swamps.
“In rural areas you don't have as many places to get food. In urban areas you have more places to get food, but they may not offer healthy options,” said Holston. "And even if healthy options exist, cost and transportation are often still barriers to access.”
Obesity in the United States affects more than 100 million adults (42%) and 14 million children (20%) and accounts for approximately $173 billion in annual health care costs. According to County Health Rankings, Louisiana’s rates of adult obesity and childhood poverty are higher than the national averages. Additionally, more than 1 in 4 adults in Louisiana are physically inactive, and nearly the same percentage do not have access to exercise opportunities through parks or recreational facilities.
As one of 16 HOP recipients, the LSU AgCenter will work with local communities to implement proven public health strategies, including:
Madison Parish ranks low on health outcomes said Yvonne Lewis, executive administrative assistant for the City of Tallulah. She is a community partner with the program and has a long list of successes that are slowly moving the health meter in her town.
They turned an abandoned plot of land into a park and school playground. They have worked with the local grocer to remove candy and other non-nutritious foods from near the checkout lane and put fruits and healthier options in their place. They’ve enhanced walking trails in an existing park.
“It takes time to change attitudes and behaviors,” Lewis said. “But the turtle always wins the race.”
The LSU AgCenter is one of 16 recipients of the High Obesity Program grants. A complete list of recipients and additional information can be found on the HOP website.
LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities agent Jocinda Jackson-Jones celebrates the newly established Walk-a-Mile Day in East Carroll Parish. The East Carroll Healthy Communities Coalition brought the proposed event to the East Carroll Parish Police Jury in 2022. East Carroll Parish is one of the parishes included in the AgCenter’s High Obesity Program that aims to address health disparities related to nutrition and physical activity. Photo by D. Jones Visuals
Members of the Tensas Healthy Communities Coalition pose at the new Tensas Produce Market in St. Joseph, Louisiana. The market, which launched on July 13, accepts both SNAP benefits and senior vouchers to help make fresh, local produce more accessible to residents. Tensas Parish is one of the parishes included in the AgCenter’s High Obesity Program. Photo by Catherine Coalson/LSU AgCenter
Youth participants enjoyed hopping along The Silly Walking Track at the Walk-a-Mile Day event in East Carroll Parish. The Silly Walking Track includes different workouts with fun facts at each sign. Photo by D. Jones Visuals