While debates on hot-button public health problems continue to make national headlines, four North Carolina counties with some of the state’s highest adult obesity rates are quietly gaining traction on solutions.
Through NC State Extension’s Health Matters project, they have increased education and access to healthy foods and physical activity and built local partnerships to sustain progress. Though the project lasted a relatively short time – from 2016 to 2018 – it continues to yield benefits. A recent tour involving state Extension administrators, local government officials, former project staff, volunteers and others highlighted a range of solutions tailored to community needs.
- In Northampton County, a new misting tower and water fountain means that kids and adults will be able to cool down on hot summer days as they play and exercise at a renovated park in the town of Seaboard.
- In Halifax County, a community garden run by volunteers from two churches now delivers more than 15 bags of produce each week to a local food pantry that previously lacked sources for fresh fruits and vegetables.
- In Edgecombe County, about 4,000 students are getting the opportunity to learn and practice bicycle safety, thanks to a new bike trailer project involving multiple agencies and a charitable foundation.
- And in Lee County, food pantry clients who’ve completed Extension nutrition education classes can borrow kitchen items – such as food processors and large pots – that they need to prepare the healthy meals they’ve learned to cook.
The Power of Partnerships
Health Matters began through a partnership forged by faculty members in three NC State colleges: Annie Hardison-Moody and Lindsey Haynes-Maslow in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences (AHS); Jason Bocarro in the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM); and Sarah Bowen in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
This project has given us an opportunity to do what we do well in Extension, and then amp that up.
The team received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and worked closely with North Carolina Cooperative Extension county directors to hire four county-based associates. “Their first step involved identifying local people, programs and partnerships that were empowering — or had the potential to empower — individuals to choose healthy eating as the result of community-based changes,” Hardison-Moody said.
Next, they built new coalitions or supported existing ones to help each county achieve solutions tailored to meet needs in individual communities.
In all, the Health Matters project engaged 147 partners on 79 projects, leveraging more than $600,000 in funding and in-kind contributions.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension has been involved in nutrition education and related efforts for decades. That’s critically important. But it often isn’t enough to sustain behavior changes that lead to improved health, Hardison-Moody said.
For that to happen, people “have to have access to healthy foods. They have to have access to places to be active,” she added. “If … you don’t have such access, it’s hard to put into place the educational messages that we’re talking about in our Extension programming.
The CDC grant, she said, “has given all of us an opportunity to do what we do well in Extension, and then amp that up, thinking about what (Extension’s) role could be in health promotion,” she said.
County staff focused first on interviewing community leaders to understand what the leaders thought about the community assets they had and what they needed to support their residents’ long-term health. Then the team worked closely with partners in each county to tailor the kind of workable, affordable solutions highlighted on the tour.
Great things have been accomplished that we are very, very proud of.
At a tour stop at the Extension center in Tarboro, Edgecombe County Manager Eric Evans praised Cooperative Extension staff members not only for making a difference through traditional educational programs but also for finding “opportunities to step outside of that typical framework to see what more they can do for citizens of our county.”
Through Health Matters and other innovative Extension programs, he continued, “great things have been accomplished that we’re very, very proud of.”