Monroe County seeing initial success in efforts to promote a healthier community
By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Feb. 24, 2017
- Arkansas Healthy LIFE program working in six counties in Arkansas
- Program aimed at increasing healthy activity, reducing obesity and more
CLARENDON, Ark. — The journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step, or so the saying goes. The journey is considerably easier, one might add, with willing travelers.
In 2015, Monroe County was one of six counties in Arkansas selected to participate in a three-year project, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aimed at reducing obesity in areas hardest hit by the health epidemic.
Jim Stinson, the mayor of Clarendon (the seat of Monroe County), said high obesity rates in the county, especially in children, have long been a cause of concern for him and others.
“The health of this community has been on my radar since day one,” Stinson said. “Being a rural community, probably at least 50 percent of our children are overweight.”
Lauren Morris, Arkansas Healthy LIFE (Lifestyle Involving Food and Exercise) project coordinator for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said that when she and her team, which is lead by Lisa Washburn, Associate Professor of Health with the Division of Agriculture, first reached out to residents in Monroe County, they encountered a community that was eager to address their problems, but that was without any of the organizational structure typical of success.
“When we started working in Monroe county, there were really no existing efforts to address health and wellness, address obesity reduction, any of that,” Morris said. “But they were clearly willing to make an effort.”
Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service agent Valerie Turner has played a major and continuing role in the process, Morris said.
In addition to Monroe County, Chicot, Craighead, Jefferson, Ouachita and Woodruff counties were also selected to participate.
In 2009, the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention initiated the Growing Healthy Communities program, which helps the state coalition to act as an umbrella for many different local grassroots groups.
“At any point a local group can apply to be a Growing Healthy Community to get formalized recognition for their efforts and formally become a part of the larger state-wide movement,” Morris said. There are about 64 coalitions across the state.
Morris said the project seeks to reduce obesity rates in selected communities through a three-pronged strategy: outreach and education, increased access to healthier food and increased access to physical activity and facilities, such as walking trail and public parks.
Although the project is intended to affect residents throughout each of the selected counties, Morris said that in Monroe County, efforts are initially being concentrated in the city of Clarendon.
“Our first step was to assess the food environment and the physical activity opportunities that existed,” Morris said. What we found is that there are very few retailers that sell produce — there’s one grocery store, but most people drive 20 miles or so to the Walmart once a month to get produce — so they weren’t getting regular access to it.
“There’s not a farmers’ market established, so there’s no way to buy produce in town outside the local grocer,” she said. “So for Monroe County, food access was a really big issue.”
Morris said that Clarendon actually has “a ton” of physical activity assets such as parks and walking trails. The town abuts the White River, Stinson said he hopes to leverage for ecotourism.
Morris said that once the Arkansas Healthy LIFE team began meeting with residents interested in turning the obesity numbers around in Monroe County, she was met with positive attitudes.
“A lot of times, what happens is that people come together, but they don’t know how to move forward with a bigger, shared vision to realize some of their goals.”
After a six-month community assessment period, in which problem areas were identified, the team brought members of the community coalition together in June 2016 to begin the process of strategic planning, in an effort to identify solutions.
Coalition members agreed to plans to establish safe access to walking paths, set aside land for community gardens and establish a farmers’ market, Morris said.
“We found a plot of land next to a senior center that they thought would be great for a community garden, which is also walking distance from a low-income housing area, so that’s included in their long-term strategic plan,” she said. “It’s something the community can benefit from, right next to the populations that need it the most.”
Although any effort to change a fundamental aspect of health in a county-wide setting is what Morris called a “slow-moving beast,” Monroe County has already been recognized as a community that has taken positive steps in a relatively short period of time to meet its challenges.
“We’re in six communities across Arkansas,” Morris said. “All of them started at different stages. Some of them had coalitions, or strategic plans in place already, but Clarendon was starting from scratch. They were by far the community where there was the most work to do— but they’ve moved faster than anyone else so far.”
To learn more about obesity reduction and other healthy living programs offered through the Division of Agriculture, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service