Helping Healthy Choices Become Easy Choices in Baldwin County

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Helping Healthy Choices Become Easy Choices in Baldwin County A family picks vegetables from a community garden in Baldwin County

BY DIANA ST. LIFER

Telling families about the importance of exercise and eating healthy is one thing; providing opportunities for them to engage in that behavior is another. Bridging that gap between understanding and opportunity was the motivation behind Live Healthy Baldwin. The grant-funded program that began four years ago with a youth summer health camp has grown to include community gardens, farmers markets, walking and biking trails, and school-based programs to help fight the county’s obesity crisis.

And a crisis it is, with obesity rates for both children and adults in Baldwin worse than the state rate. Jim Lidstone, director of the Center for Health and Social Issues at Georgia College, said 33 percent of adults in the county are obese, compared to the state’s 25 percent. And the obesity rate for children is about 8 percent higher than the state’s 17 percent.

Lidstone was well aware of the harmful effects that years of unhealthy eating and little, if any exercise, is having on Baldwin County families. “I knew obesity was a huge problem and I wanted to do something about that,” he said.

With a $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Lidstone established Live Healthy Baldwin, a community-wide initiative that increased opportunities for physical activities and access to healthy food, particularly for at-risk children.

That program took the fight against childhood obesity head on and has given Baldwin County a running start in the Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) Childhood Obesity Prevention Initiative. Joining Baldwin in the effort are Talbot and Newton counties.

“This is truly an issue that is detrimentally affecting the health of our children now and in the future,” said Baldwin County Family Connection coordinator Janet Cavin, citing that 62 percent of the 449 third graders in Baldwin are considered overweight or obese. “Our hope is that within the next five years we will decrease that number by at least 10 percent.”

Contributing to the high rate of childhood obesity in Baldwin are two large food deserts, lack of countywide public transportation, the elimination of physical education programs in the schools, and lack of nutrition education.

“As with any initiative that affects the whole community, you need leaders from city and county government, school administrators, and groups active in town to come together,” Cavin explained.

That kind of collaboration has resulted in community and school gardens where residents and students can plan and harvest plots, increased opportunities for children to be active during the school day, and trails where families can bike or walk around the community.

“There was a time when all elementary children went outside for recess or physical education, but that’s not part of the regular school day more,” Cavin said, adding that plans are in the development stage to formalize a policy that would mandate 60 minutes of physical education every day for elementary school children.

The county also is considering repurposing abandoned property or blighted areas whenever possible. “We’re hoping to institute a joint city-council land bank program where these areas could be turned into affordable housing and parks where families can ride bikes, walk together, and enjoy ball fields, tennis courts, and other opportunities for outdoor activity,” she said.

This is exactly what was done in the Harrisburg section of Milledgeville, where the cafeteria of a closed-down elementary school has been converted into a community center. Outside the center is a community garden and walking trail, with future plans for an orchard with apple trees and blueberry bushes for the public to enjoy. Cavin said they also are working with the county Extension Agency to provide classes on growing, canning, and freezing seasonal fruits and vegetables.

“We’re dealing with generations of people who don’t know how to prepare or store fresh foods and vegetables,” she said. “With that knowledge and education, families would be more inclined to choose healthier alternatives over fast food.”

Lidstone agrees. “Ultimately it comes down to people making healthy choices, and right now some segments of the population just don’t have a choice,” he said. “We’re trying to make the healthy choice be the easy choice.”

Baldwin also is one of 500 communities across the nation to adopt a Complete Streets Policy—a commitment by government officials that when streets are being reconstructed, they will be designed to accommodate bikers and pedestrians as well.

The most far-reaching and long-term project, however, is Rails to Trails, a 33-mile trail built alongside old railroad tracks that would stretch from Milledgeville to Macon. In addition to the physical benefits for residents, the trail would be a boon to the business community. “It would be huge in terms of economic development for the area,” Lidstone said. While the trail is a 10- to 15-year project, Lidstone hopes elected officials in the three counties the trail would run through—Baldwin, Jones and Bibb—will commit to the project by the end of this year.

While the initial funding for the Live Healthy Baldwin program ends in December, efforts to solve the challenge of childhood obesity will continue through the three-county collaborative cohort, which is being funded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. In addition, Baldwin is a finalist for a three-year grant from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation.

“A lot of the research has showed us that children who are overweight and suffering from other ailments that come along with that are having a much shorter life span,” Cavin said. “Educating them about living a healthy lifestyle as they are growing could have a huge impact on what happens to them as adults.”

Diana St. Lifer is a professional writer with more than 25 years’ experience. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, a post-B.A. certificate in child advocacy, and is a certified professional life coach who specializes in teen and adolescent issues.