Healthy Communities initiative works to improve rural health

(11/28/16) BATON ROUGE, La. – As three rural parishes wrap up their first year participating in the LSU AgCenter-led Healthy Communities project, community members are now making plans for how they will work to make sustainable changes to improve residents’ health in 2017.

The project is a grassroots effort to improve life in rural Louisiana by making healthful foods and recreation opportunities more accessible. It launched in West Carroll Parish in 2013.

When the AgCenter received a two-year, $1.45 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year, Healthy Communities expanded to St. Helena, Madison and Tensas parishes.

West Feliciana Parish was recently added to the project.

The Healthy Communities concept will soon be implemented statewide through AgCenter family and consumer sciences programs, although the focus will remain on the selected parishes.

AgCenter nutrition agents are leading educational programs and discussions with community members in each of the parishes. All face similar problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, — that are the result of low availability of nutritious foods and recreation, said Denise Holston-West, a registered dietician with the AgCenter.

Working with the AgCenter on the project is the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which is assessing communities’ needs and their progress toward better health, and the Southern University Ag Center, which is starting school and community gardens in an effort to increase access to healthy foods. The Louisiana Department of Health is also participating.

CDC officials recently visited each of the parishes, where the AgCenter has hosted health fairs, garden projects, nutrition camps for children and community meetings to discuss goals, said Elisabeth Altazan, Healthy Communities program manager.

Efforts in each parish are overseen by a coalition of volunteers, which include residents as well as strategic partners like school board members, police jurors and hospital employees.

“Our coalitions are making plans for projects they want to accomplish in year two,” Altazan said. “They’re also talking about long-term plans. They are really focused on making this sustainable.”

The initiative has helped bring national experts — like public health consultant Mark Fenton, who conducted “walk audits” with residents of Greensburg, Tallulah, Newellton and Waterproof — to rural areas that are often overlooked, she said. It has also opened doors to establish more partnerships with state agencies, including the Department of Transportation and Development and the Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence.

“The goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Holston-West said.

Much of the first year of the project was spent developing relationships with the communities.

“It takes time to establish trust,” she said. “Rural areas are disproportionately affected by nutrition-related chronic diseases, and addressing these issues requires community buy-in. It is a slow process because it takes time and effort to make sustainable change.”

Small towns have different challenges than large cities. Many rural Louisiana parishes have high rates of poverty and poor infrastructure, Holston-West said.

Children who live in rural areas are much more likely to be obese, Altazan said.

The coalitions have been trying to solve these problems. In Madison Parish, for example, Tallulah residents decided to revitalize a park in The Fairgrounds neighborhood so children have a safe place to play and adults have a green space for social gatherings, Altazan said.

Residents in each of the parishes have expressed interest in restoring downtowns so they have better walkability, which would add much-needed venues for exercise. DOTD has helped identify ways to make it safer to walk between businesses and other key locations, Altazan said.

The AgCenter has also been working with schools on their wellness policies and with grocery stores to market healthy, convenient options. Access to food remains a struggle for many, however.

“There may be only one grocery store,” Altazan said. “In Waterproof in Tensas Parish, you have to drive 15 miles to get to a store. And these places all have high poverty rates, so a lot of people don’t have cars. They have to walk or ride a bike.”

Relationships, and the discussions about making positive changes they have sparked, have been key to Healthy Communities success thus far. Anyone interested in joining the Healthy Communities initiative as a partner should contact Holston-West at 225-578-4573 or Altazan at 225-578-5207.

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Twenty youths participated in the C.H.E.F. (Creating Healthy and Enjoyable Foods) Camp hosted by Healthy Communities in Tensas Parish. Youths spent five hours a day for five days learning how to prepare healthful meals. Photo provided by Elisabeth Altazan

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Students participate in a Southern University Ag Center-led gardening workshop at St. Helena Elementary to replant the school gardens for the fall season. Youths planted decorative flowers as well as edible plants such as artichokes, lettuce, carrots, strawberries and herbs. Photo provided by Elisabeth Altazan

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Doug Curtis, left, owner of Doug’s Fresh Market in Tallulah, met with CDC representatives and the Healthy Communities team to give a tour of his grocery store and discuss promoting healthful foods to customers. Terry O’Toole, acting chief of the Program Development and Evaluation Branch of the CDC is pictured on the right. Photo provided by Elisabeth Altazan

11/28/2016 10:00:34 PM
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