Healthier Communities

The Center for Rural Affairs offers a new report that examines ways to promote healthy living in rural communities.

Family time and walking are ways to make a healthy ommunity.

Family time and walking are ways to create a healthy community.

iStockphoto.com/Tomaz Levstek

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Lyons, Nebraska – The Center for Rural Affairs recently released a report, “Healthy Communities–Healthy People” that examines what rural people, families, businesses and communities can do to reverse trends showing rural people, on average, eat less nutritious food, get less physical activity, and are more often obese than their urban counterparts.

Federal policy can assist rural Americans to create healthier lifestyles by funding community initiatives to create, improve, or maintain an infrastructure that encourages preventative behaviors like eating right and exercising. However, many rural communities lack the resources for full-time staff to seek out federal grants, and, as a result, miss out on public funding because they are unaware of opportunities.

"Rural people know that disease and disability are likely to be the end result of a lifestyle of poor eating and insufficient exercise, leading to obesity," says Julia Hudson, author of the report and a health policy intern with the Rural Research and Analysis Program at the Center for Rural Affairs. "However, it is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior while immersed in an environment that begs them to stay the same."

Health care reform legislation now being debated in Congress can also help make individuals, families and communities healthier by encouraging community-based initiatives, says Jon Bailey, dDirector of the Center for Rural Affairs Rural Research and Analysis Program.

"One of the disappointing aspects of the health care reform debate has been the total lack of discussion on what individuals, families and communities can do to promote healthy living and prevent the vast majority of diseases and conditions that drive up health care costs for everyone. Creating a healthier society through wellness and prevention should be one of the ultimate goals of reform legislation," Bailey says. "What is needed is encouragement, assistance and commitment to make healthier people and communities. That should be one of the goals of federal health care legislation – providing tools to individuals, families and communities to design local health promotion initiatives."

A full copy of the report can be viewed and downloaded at the center’s website.

According to Bailey, the health care reform legislation approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee of the U.S Senate contains a provision to provide grants to communities to implement wellness and health promotion initiatives. "This is a good provision, and it should be included in the final version of health care reform legislation. We are working with members of Congress to make sure rural communities are included in wellness and health promotion grants and that the grants meet the unique needs of rural people and rural communities," Bailey says.

To make sure funds are targeted to the communities most in need, the report proposes that "circuit riders" should actively engage underserved, rural communities with public health concerns by going to them with information, financial assistance and a commitment to help. Whether circuit riders simply share information or organize and assist interested residents in forming "community health committees" to implement community-based health programs, their role is key to equalizing opportunities for healthy living.

A few of the key points in the report are:

Keep It Fresh – People are more likely to eat fresh, healthy foods when they are available and affordable. A federal tax credit for rural retail food outlets based on the percentage of total sales in fresh fruits and vegetables could help rural families maintain nutritious diets. Such a tax credit would offset costs incurred for storing and refrigerating fresh foods, making it more economical for grocery and convenience stores to stock fresh foods. The tax credit could also help make nutritious foods more affordable by giving grocers an incentive to pass on some of the savings to their customers. Price reductions can be an effective way to get more people purchasing fresh produce. With more people buying more fresh food, grocers realize larger tax credits and families realize healthier lives.

Active Transportation – One approach to increasing physical activity is to encourage people to walk or bike as a part of daily travel. Factors like the condition of sidewalks and traffic patterns influence whether people choose to walk or bike. Local residents and local governments should ensure that community infrastructure is conducive to active living. Mixed land use and zoning regulations that provide locations of schools and shops in areas that are safely accessible through walking or biking make active living more useful and attractive to residents.

Mixed-use Facilities – Mixed-use facilities increase residents' options for physical activity. Physically active rural people are more likely to have access to indoor exercise facilities that can be used year round. To provide reliable access to such facilities, communities can work with schools to establish joint use agreements that allow use of school families for public recreation, allowing use of recreation facilities even in the worse weather.

Active Worship – Strong social ties in rural communities have great potential to encourage healthy lifestyles. The social networks in faith communities can be employed to organize group exercise and healthy eating activities. Church groups could encourage biking or walking to church, healthy food at potlucks, and the spiritual encouragement to care for body and mind.

Group Reads – Another place where friends gather is the local library. Rural libraries are uniquely positioned to integrate learning and social activities to make healthy living interesting and fun. Libraries can play a role in wellness and health promotion by organizing a community read program that focuses on books and materials that draw attention to the realities of what people eat and how individuals, families and communities can live healthier. Libraries could also provide healthy cookbooks, other materials on wellness, and exercise DVDs.

This is the seventh in a series of Center for Rural Affairs' reports examining crucial health care issues in rural America. Previous reports can be found on the front page of the center's website.

The Center for Rural Affairs was established in 1973 as an unaffiliated nonprofit corporation under IRS code 501(c)3. The Center for Rural Affairs was formed by rural Nebraskans concerned about family farms and rural communities, and the organization works to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities.