Policy Point Wednesday: Interventions for Health in Rural America

While Americans have a mental picture of "healthy country living," rural Americans are more often obese than their urban counterparts. High rates of obesity correlate with higher rates of chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and other diseases. (Keep in mind that obesity over a large population correlates with lifestyle-related disease, although a given individual may be obese and healthy.) Of course, poverty, one of the most common risk factors for poor health, is common in rural communities. Poverty away from an urban center is compounded by a lack of access: it can be 10 miles or more to the nearest grocery store, there may be fewer public spaces for exercise, fewer doctors and more challenges accessing healthcare.

Fortunately, rural populations are not without resources: the Rural Action Center has created an "Obesity Toolkit" to provide evidence-based interventions that specifically target rural communities. For instance, the RAC discusses schools and school transportation as the key to assisting the rural poor: it is doubly important to make sure kids have physical education, recess and healthy school lunches daily, and that school transportation considers afterschool programs as well as those during school. Rural communities have other assets, including 4-H programs, farmers who can teach gardening skills to increase access to produce, and centralized employers who can start employee health programs.

For instance, in Michigan, a program called Thumb Area Nutrition and Physical Activity Campaign by the Tuscola County Health Department, created a simple, four-part program to reach out to the at-risk populations in their area. Using community presentations, they promoted a walking program for adults and one for youth, and then followed up with a social marketing campaign. Success was measured via surveys done throughout the program, and showed some small gains in physical activity and dietary habits.

Considering that rural communities drive the engine of health for their urban counterparts (all of our food comes from a rural environment!) we have an obligation to make sure that these communities stay healthy. Our focus as advocates should be on ensuring that everyone has equal access to the tools they need to be healthy Americans.

Filed under: Food News

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