ATHENS – Obesity affects millions of Americans and increases the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other causes of premature death. The percentage of American adults suffering from obesity has risen steadily, from 13.4% in the early 1960s to the current average of over 42%.
In response to this outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the High Obesity Program (HOP) in 2014. For states with adult obesity rates above 40%, the grant funds extension programs universities that promote nutrition and physical activity in affected counties.
The University of Georgia received the grant in 2016, and UGA Cooperative Extension quickly began implementing Healthier Together Georgia in two counties: Calhoun and Taliaferro. The second phase of the grant extended the program to Clay, Dooly and Stewart counties in 2018.
The program does not present a single solution, according to Marsha Davis, dean of the College of Public Health and principal investigator of the grant.
âAlthough the five counties are similar in their rurality and culture, they are diverse in resources, which makes working in each community a unique experience,â said Davis.
Extension staff in each county brought community members together to assess health issues in each community and tailor interventions.
The partnership with the College of Public Health has greatly enhanced the impact of the UGA Extension, said Laura Perry Johnson, associate dean for the extension.
âThis has been an important part of increasing our ability to deliver health and wellness programs throughout the state of Georgia,â she said.
Building a coalition involves meeting with local government officials, business owners, educators, pastors, health professionals, and other citizens to get their views on the health needs of the community. Grace Holmes, an educator with Healthier Together, facilitates many of these focus groups and said the program differs from previous efforts.
âWhile past interventions have focused on better personal choices, much of our work emphasizes resources – that if you don’t have access to those resources, your built environment can impact your life. ability to be healthy, âsays Holmes. âWhen people hear this message, it lets them know they can do it; they just need the resources.
Once the coalition was in place, members explored the community – grocery stores, markets, pantries, parks and playgrounds – to assess how well residents have access to nutrition and exercise, said Hannah Southall , coordinator of the Healthier Together program at the UGA College of Public Health. .
âWe are doing a needs assessment where we look at the current food system in the region, including the availability of food and the current costs of healthier produce and foods compared to regular choices,â Southall said. “We are also looking at physical activity and the built environment of the community to see if there are playgrounds and access to gyms in the area, what condition are the sidewalks and if the tracks at local high schools. are open to the public. “
This data informs the development of projects and strategies that meet the specific needs of the community. Program staff guide community leaders in applying for funding and ensure projects meet grant requirements.
Despite the limitations of grants that do not cover labor costs, Healthier Together Georgia is successful because it fosters strong partnerships and encourages creative thinking. Community coalitions include individuals, such as the manager of a discount store where locals buy food, and a director of state parks who oversees recreation in the area.
In addition to the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, UGA’s College of Public Health and Extension, the College of Environment and Design offers expertise in analyzing built environments and designing changes that increase access to physical activity.
Coalition members can already report positive changes in their communities. Newly installed walking signs encourage exercise by showing walking times to neighborhood destinations. Parks and playgrounds are redeveloped and hiking trails improved. Newly developed guidelines help pantries acquire more nutritious gifts. Local markets and pantries now have take-out coolers that increase the storage of perishable items. And community gardens provide even more access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The community gardens were the biggest success of the program, said Denise Everson, Northeast District Program Development Coordinator for UGA Extension and CAES.
âThe gardens bring together different groups in the community and promote the sharing of resources,â said Everson. âOne of the larger gardens had once received too much land and shared the excess land with a small garden that had just started. This kind of cooperation really creates a community spirit, which makes these projects sustainable.
As Healthier Together is still ongoing, a significant decrease in obesity in these countries may not be measurable for several years. But local leaders and volunteers are fully invested in the program, and this ownership is what will move the work forward after the current HOP grant expires in 2023. What is certain is that UGA Extension will continue to provide. resources to these communities, as it has done throughout Georgia for over a century.