University of Georgia Cooperative Extension has been instrumental in helping two Georgia counties secure funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat obesity.
The two-year, $1.25 million grant is designed to boost obesity prevention in Calhoun and Taliaferro counties, two counties with the highest obesity rates in the state.
Andrea Scarrow, UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences program development coordinator (PDC) for the Southwest District, and Denise Everson, UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences PDC for the Northeast District, are responsible for coordinating efforts to increase physical activity and access to healthy food options.
“The grant will help us target new interventions to bring research-based education related to nutrition and physical activity to Calhoun County,” Scarrow said. “We will be able to increase the reach of our Extension programs that already exist. Melinda Miller, 4-H program development coordinator, and I will be working closely with the community to determine goals and interventions.”
Everson said her main goal for the grant will be outreach through UGA Extension.
“The overarching goal for the grant is to provide communitywide Extension outreach specifically focused on healthy behaviors,” Everson said. “We want to offer Extension programming that directly targets healthy behaviors for children, youth and families.”
Scarrow and Miller worked with Shanda Ashley, Calhoun County UGA Extension coordinator, to form a coalition of community leaders. The Calhoun County coalition will decide how to reach the goal of nutrition and physical fitness accessibility and will work with the community in a multisector approach to achieving the goal. In addition, grant funds have been already used to hire a new program assistant for Calhoun County UGA Extension, Kiswana Eafford, who will focus 100 percent of her time on this project.
“Shanda and Kiswana will be the face of Healthier Together Calhoun. It would be impossible to implement this project without their leadership. We’ll be working with the school system and the county and city governments,” Scarrow said. “There are four municipalities in Calhoun County, so we’ll be working with all of them as well as the health department, Family Connection and many other community partners, such as farmers and grocery stores.”
Barbara Twilley has been hired to work full time on this initiative at the local level in Taliaferro County. She is the “community advocate, recruiting folks for our coalition and coordinating local efforts,” according to Everson.
Twilley has already started forming a coalition of community leaders who will look at the resources the county already has in place, as well as what it needs to better spend the grant money.
“We want to begin by determining what resources and programs are already available,” Everson said. “It doesn’t do any good to tell the people how to eat healthy if they don’t have access to healthy food options. We will work with our community coalitions to create sustainable programming efforts that build on the priorities of the community.”
Some of the money will be used to show people how to eat healthy given limited resources.
“We will be offering educational programs to teach families how to eat healthy on a budget by using readily available and shelf-stable foods,” Everson said.
Many people don’t think about the lack of food in Georgia because of the amount of agribusiness here, but that is sometimes the case, Everson said.
“Many of the foods produced in Georgia are seasonal, so farmers are only growing what they’re growing at the time and they may be growing products with the intentions of shipping them to another area,” Everson said. “We do have a lot of rural communities that may not have access to fresh produce and other healthy food options. As part of this program, we may be able to increase access to fresh produce or increase individuals’ knowledge on how to grow their own produce.”
Both counties will implement environmental changes to their communities in order to increase residents’ physical activity.
“If a park stayed open longer or a new playground was built or the walkability of the community changed, then people would have greater access to places where they can be more physically active,” Scarrow said.
“We also want to promote safe places for physical activity,” Everson said. “There may be many places to go play in these communities, but it is critical that they are safe places and they are accessible to the community.”
Scarrow said fighting obesity is important because obesity leads to chronic diseases.
“For those who are overweight and obese, there is a higher incidence of diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease, which causes the most health-related deaths in the U.S.,” Scarrow said. “If you decrease obesity rates, you decrease your rates of chronic disease.”
Everson said a less obese community can provide a better quality of life as well as lift a financial burden.
“If we have a healthier community, then kids will be more likely to do well in school, get good jobs and contribute back to the community,” Everson said. “A healthier community puts less strain on taxpayer dollars by lessening the health care needed. Healthy employees are more likely to show up and do well at work.”
This project is led by the UGA College of Public Health and UGA Extension, an outreach unit of the university supported by specialists in the university’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Additional partners include UGA’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a public service and outreach unit; local, district and state UGA Extension offices; community organizations; and local, district and state public health departments.
(Kyle Dawson is an intern on the UGA Tifton Campus.)