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Three New Mexico rural communities to participate in regional obesity prevention program

Many risk factors have been associated with children being overweight or obese, including rural residency. Aspects of the rural environment make it difficult for children to access and eat healthy foods, walk or bike to destinations, and participate in physical activity and recreational sport programs.

Five women in orange vests
New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service home economists in three counties will help rural communities to identify ways to improve access to healthy eating and physical activities for children in the Generating Rural Options for Weight-Healthy Kids and Community program. They will use GPS cameras to document people's experience of place with respect to support or barriers for habitual healthy eating and physical activity. Receiving training in using the mapping device are, from left, Judy O'Loughlin, Grant County home economist; Brenda Bishop, Quay County home economist; Deborah John, program researcher from Oregon State University; Corina Chavez-Neish of Torrance County; and Sonja Koukel, NMSU Extension community and environmental health specialist. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service is participating in a six-state program to help rural communities identify ways to improve access to healthy eating and physical activities for children.

"Generating Rural Options for Weight-Healthy Kids and Communities is a five-year, multi-level research project that seeks to inspire children, families, schools and communities to create opportunities to eat healthfully and be physically active most every day," said Sonja Koukel, community and environmental health specialist with NMSU's Extension Family and Consumer Sciences.

The program was developed by Oregon State University and is now being conducted in Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. GROW Healthy Kids and Community is funded by a $4.87 million grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

NMSU Extension offices in three counties have been selected to administer the state's initial projects. Home economist Brenda Bishop in Quay County, Judy O'Loughlin in Grant County and Corina Chavez-Neish in Torrance County will be working with residents to map attributes of their community environment, and establish a project specifically for their community's healthy eating and activity needs.

"GROW Healthy Kids and Communities is obesity prevention focusing on the environmental conditions that exist in rural communities, conditions that make it easy or hard for people who live in those communities to develop and maintain healthy eating and physical activity habits and lifestyles," said Deborah John, principle researcher at Oregon State University.

"Rural communities pose unique challenges for rural residents that differ from those faced by individuals residing in more metropolitan regions. Nevertheless, most evidence-based strategies to combat obesity have been developed and tested in non-rural settings," John said.

Many communities lack access to affordable fresh, nutritious food, and it is difficult to walk or bike to destinations and participate regularly in physical activity and recreational sport programs. Furthermore, features of rural schools, particularly those in under-resourced communities, are such that students often face long bus commutes, minimal or no provision of health and physical education by certified teachers, and few resources to support health and/or enrich the academic environment.

The first phase of the program is to determine the community's needs. The home economist in the selected counties will recruit residents to identify features in their community that are supports or barriers to eating healthy and being physically active.

Quay County will be the first county to begin the project. The team will begin surveying Tucumcari in January. In February, Grant County's team will begin mapping Bayard City. The Torrance County project will be done during the summer.

"Residents will be looking at not just the available resources in a community but how the availability of those resources may actually support, enable or hinder some people's access because of where they are located, because of the cost, because of a variety of factors," John said.

"What is nice about this program is that it is a participatory community assessment," Koukel said. "It's going to give the community members, themselves, an idea of what's happening. Many times we drive by an environmental situation and not even notice it."

The team will gather this information with HEAL MAPPS - Healthy Eating Active Living: Mapping Attributes using Participatory Photographic Surveys. By using GPS cameras, the community teams will document people's experience of place with respect to support or barriers for habitual healthy eating and physical activity.

"Through this process community members are mobilized to tell the story of their community place and to tell the story as it relates to obesity preventing behaviors," John said. "They will be answering the question of how does their community affect health in a way that makes it either hard or easy for the people who live here to behave in ways that ultimately would prevent the onset of overweight and obesity."

As an example of the program's success in Oregon, John tells of a community that decided to use grant funds from the program to build a quarter-mile walking track adjacent to its elementary and middle schools.

"The school used the track during the day as part of its students' physical activity and during non-school hours the community used it for adult and family exercise," she said. "Once the community demonstrated they would use a safe facility for walking, the community leaders determined it needed a walkway/parkway from a housing development to the grocery store so people without motor vehicles could attend to their shopping."

The $8,000 walking track project evolved to a $62,000 walkway-parkway funded in part by the state highway department. Recently, the school district has obtained a $72,000 Farm to School grant to improve the food in the schools districtwide.

"This shift in the community's attitude from a poor rural community to one that encourages healthy lifestyle occurred in a little over a year. Our program, GROW Healthy Kids and Communities, helped empower rural people to make changes in their environment and lives," John said.