(07/15/16) GREENSBURG, La. – Community support and creative ideas can go a long way in improving people’s health in rural areas, a public health consultant said July 11 at a meeting of the LSU AgCenter-led Healthy Communities coalition in St. Helena Parish.
Mark Fenton said many rural residents have limited access to nutritious foods or places to exercise, creating an environment where it can be difficult to make healthier choices. But there are ways to adapt strategies that have been used in urban areas, he said, if people consider what would appeal to others in their community.
“I could write the list of all the reasons it won’t work here,” Fenton said. “We’ve got to stop doing that. What we’ve got to say is, how can that work in a place where population density is lower, where there’s a handful of employers, where we don’t really have big town centers?”
Minorities and low-income groups are disproportionately affected by the health problems that result from physical inactivity and poor nutrition, Fenton said.
Those are among the issues being studied by Healthy Communities, a community-driven effort to identify ways to improve residents’ access to nutritious foods and recreation opportunities. The initiative began in West Carroll Parish 2013 and expanded this year to St. Helena, Madison and Tensas parishes after the LSU AgCenter received at two-year, $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All four parishes that are part of the initiative are rural and share many of the same problems, including high rates of poverty and the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease, which largely stem from a lack of exercise and difficulty accessing healthy foods, said Denise Holston-West, a registered dietician with the LSU AgCenter.
The Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center, LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals are working with the LSU AgCenter on the Healthy Communities project.
Representatives from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Center for Planning Excellence and the Capital Region Planning Commission attended the July 11 meeting and are partnering with Healthy Communities efforts in St. Helena Parish. Several community members, including members of the parish police jury, also attended.
“In order to address the environment that influences our health choices, it's going to take everyone: private, public and non-profit organizations, elected officials, city planners, community members, schools and local leaders,” said Elisabeth Altazan, who is managing the efforts in St. Helena, Madison and Tensas parishes. “Healthy Communities exists to convene these key players and start the discussion of what the community at hand needs, based on both input gathered at community forums and data.”
Fenton led some of the meeting attendees on a walking audit of Greensburg, pausing a few times to point out safety concerns for pedestrians and cyclists. The group then exchanged ideas for possible developments, including simple additions like benches, bike racks and painted crosswalks.
Fenton noted that in Greensburg, many central services – such as the hospital, high school, pharmacy, bank and some stores – are located near one another. He also pointed out that there are not clear areas for people to walk or ride bikes along roads in Greensburg.
Painting bike lanes and shoulders are an inexpensive way to make walking and cycling much safer, which could encourage more people to park in one place, and walk and bike in between errands, Fenton said.
“I really enjoyed the meeting,” said Sarah Kent, a lifelong resident of St. Helena Parish and member of the Healthy Communities coalition. “Mr. Fenton brought good ideas to Greensburg and to the parish by walking through the town instead of the usual driving, which is something that is very simple that we can do on a daily basis.”
The name of the Capital Region Planning Commission was misstated in the original posting.
Members of the LSU AgCenter-led Healthy Communities coalition pause near a building at the intersection of La. Highway 37 and La. Highway 10 in Greensburg as consultant Mark Fenton, right, talks about ways to improve nutrition and exercise opportunities on July 11, 2016. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
Members of the LSU AgCenter-led Healthy Communities coalition take a walking tour of Greensburg to identify ways to improve nutrition and exercise opportunities on July 11, 2016. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter