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Combating Obesity in Rural America


On Wednesday, October 1, Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC) hosted a congressional briefing on obesity in rural America and premiered their new toolkit for combating obesity in rural areas.

Leading the conversation were Maya Rockeymoore, director of LHC, John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust, Katie Adamson, senior director of health partnerships and policy for YMCA of the USA, Sen. Benny Shendo and Rep. Scott Simon.

Nearly 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas. Of these 70 million people, 40 percent are overweight or obese ―that’s almost 7 percentage points higher than the population of urban areas.

So why the differences between rural and urban areas? Research points to contributing factors that include geographic isolation, poverty, a high prevalence of food deserts (20 percent of rural areas are considered food deserts), and a lack of safe spaces for physical activity.

There is “clearly a challenge facing rural Americans,” says Rockeymoore. “Our zip code can be just as important as our genetic code in determining how well – and how long – we live.”

LHC has compiled their new toolkit for rural childhood obesity prevention to include various strategies, resources and information to help reverse the disparities by addressing two key points: active living and healthy eating.

Creating an environment of active living can be difficult in rural areas due to lack of infrastructure pieces like paved roads, school and local gyms and the mere fact that most everything is much further apart.

Building walkable communities and complete streets can not only help the safety of residents, it can encourage physical activity. The toolkit notes that “residents of walkable neighborhoods get an average of 35 to 40 minutes more physical activity per week than residents of non-walkable communities,” and that their risk of becoming overweight or obese is lowered.

Other suggestions the LHC proposes for rural areas include creating shared-use agreements, by which organizations share physical activity facilities, creating rails-to-trails programs, through which old railroad tracks are converted to trails for walking and biking, and forming rural obesity prevention task forces and diabetes prevention programs dedicated to developing ideas and suggestions for community initiatives and health education.

Additionally, communities can help encourage physical activity in children by establishing a Safe Routes to School program or walking school buses and investing in physical education programs in schools. For adults, creating walking groups can provide a way for residents to hold exercise while socializing and engaging with the community.

In addition to creating active living opportunities, healthy eating is an area that must be addressed in order to curb the obesity rates in rural areas. According to the LHC, this is done in four areas: school policy, food and beverage policy, increasing access to healthy foods and community health engagement.

First, schools need to make sure that they are implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provides guidelines for the types of food sold in lunchrooms, school stores, vending machines and a la carte lines. Since many rural areas’ economies depend on agriculture, school gardens and farm-to-school programs, which can both provide fresh, locally grown foods to schools, can also help introduce new fruits and vegetables to students as well as provide nutrition education.

LHC also suggests that communities and government work together to change policies relating to the advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages, requiring restaurant menus to note calorie counts, and promoting local food procurement.

Fresh Food Financing Initiatives (FFFI) can provide grants and loans to help encourage the establishment of grocery stores and supermarkets. In food deserts where people must travel up to 10 miles to the nearest supermarket, FFFIs can help give communities access to healthy options.

Farmer’s markets, mobile markets and community supported agriculture, where residents purchase food directly from local farmers, are also ways that communities can help encourage healthy eating.

Combating obesity in America is imperative, Rockeymoore concludes, “so we don’t have multiple generations suffering from the same preventable diseases.”

To download the toolkit and resources available from the LHC, visit their website.