Staples, Minn.,
21:56 PM

Exercising a commitment to a healthier community

Dissatisfied with its health and wellness scores, Morrison County developed strategies and enlisted community partners to make their county a healthier place to live, work, and play

It was time to step up.

Sarah Pratt and Carmen Genske know the staggering statistics all too well. Morrison County continues to score poorly compared to the state averages of adult obesity, physical inactivity, and access to exercise opportunities.

Thirty-five percent of adults are obese in Morrison County compared to the state average of 27 percent. In relation to physical inactivity, 24 percent of the county's adult residents do not get the recommended level of regular physical activity compared to the state average of 20 percent. The statistics are not surprising, when access to exercise opportunities also scores low at50 percent compared to 88 percent at the state level.

However, with the help of community feedback, the Morrison County Public Health and Human Services supervisor and Community Health educator have developed strategies and goals to make their county a healthier place to live, work, and play. And just last year, the women proposed their project to Sourcewell by way of a Small Projects Partnership application, receiving $2,000 to help put the plan in motion.

Every five years, public health departments throughout the country are required to conduct a community health needs assessment to identify and describe factors that affect the health of a population and determine the availability of resources to adequately address health concerns.

“The community health needs assessment assures that local resources are directed toward activities and interventions that address critical and timely public health needs,” explains Morrison County Public Health and Human Services Supervisor Sarah Pratt.

Morrison County's community health assessment spanning from 2016 through December 2018 set an objective to develop to develop help residents develop habits that are proven to reduce obesity rates.

Three goals emerged:

to increase fifth-graders' physical activity outside of the school day by 30 minutes each week

to increase plant-based foods by one serving per week for those same fifth-grade students

to help those students consume one fewer sugary beverage per day

Genske explained fifth grade students were chosen as the target population for this project based on the fact they take a Minnesota State Student Survey every three years. Goals set as part of this project will match the subsequent questions on the survey to help determine the project's effectiveness and impact.

With a deadline of December 2018 to meet or beat these goals, Morrison County Public Health sought out a variety of community partners for financial support and collaboration.

Getting Physical

“We wanted to look at physical activity as a whole in our community,” said Genske, community health educator. “When it came to access to exercise opportunities, we were lower than the state average. So, we asked ourselves, ‘what can we do to increase that?’”

Through a collaboration of several community partners, the idea of an exercise trail was identified and ultimately boiled down to a Fit Trail system.

The Fit Trail system consists of 10 exercise stations and is designed to encourage and motivate individuals of all ages to reach their fitness goals in a fun way. Participants move from one exercise station to the next and perform the exercise as illustrated at each stop.

The trail system, purchased and slated to be installed in spring 2019, will be located in Little Falls' Pine Grove Park, nestled in a residential area, close to the city's schools and adjacent to a local zoo with access to picnic tables and a playground.

“What we're most excited about is the fact that this trail system is accessible and conducive to all ages, abilities, and fitness levels,” Pratt says, adding the county eventually would like to explore the incorporation of sidewalks to help encourage walking and safe biking.

In February, the Pierz School District challenged its fourth- and fifth-grade students to engage in 30 minutes of physical activity outside of the school day. Little Falls schools will begin a similar challenge this spring.

“Kids always enjoy a little friendly competition,” Pratt said.

Encouraged by their teachers and physical education staff, students are charged with tracking their activity outside of the school day. Pratt said sports practice and games do not count; however, shoveling snow, cleaning the yard, following a workout video, and other activities do.

Students with the highest time tracked will win bragging rights and a fruit-infuser water bottle at the conclusion of the challenge.

Healthy Habits at Home

As the county's community health educator in Morrison County, Genske embraced the opportunity to educate students and adults in the importance of integrating more plant-based foods into their regular diet. In cooperation with the University of Minnesota Extension Office, cooking classes were offered to families. With a focus on fruits and vegetables, six families were given meal ideas and recipes to take the guesswork out of healthier eating, including a tour through the produce section of a local grocery store. Children from each family had an opportunity to come up with their own healthy recipe they could help make at home. And each family that participated in all six weeks of the program received a grocery store gift card.

Sugar Shortage

During Summer 2018, three-gallon fruit-infuser water jugs were purchased and utilized by three Morrison County summer youth programs to introduce students to infused water as an alternative to sugary beverages. One jug was placed at the Boys and Girls Club, and the other two were at summer programs at Little Falls Kids Hideout and the Swanville Bulldog Club.

Soon, the initiative caught on throughout the county. Swanville Public Schools district was given an infuser jug through Public Health, then received a grant to purchase fruit. The Pierz and Little Falls districts began a friendly competition tracking water consumption. Little Falls school district students were given the opportunity to try fruit-infused water during lunch, which included melons grown in their own school garden.

“We continue to receive really good feedback from both students and staff,” Genske said.

Spurred from the momentum of the water initiative, Morrison County is now participating in the University of Minnesota Extension Office's One Vegetable, One Community project. Packs of vegetable seeds are distributed to students throughout the county in hopes students and their families will begin a vegetable garden at home to promote both healthy eating and physical activity.

Both Pratt and Genske said they've been motivated by the success and excitement surrounding each of the community assessment-borne initiatives. In fact, county offices and St Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls have started providing and promoting water consumption through fruit-infuser water bottles. And other regional communities have shared interest in installing Fit Trail systems in their cities.

“We're excited about it. And now as the community is becoming more aware of it, we're finding new and exciting ways to get more people engaged,” Pratt said, also acknowledging the efforts and involvement of school superintendents throughout Morrison County, Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka, City Engineer Greg Kimman, and Morrison County commissioners.

“I think it is important to highlight our community partners around the table,” she says. “The community health needs assessment is a requirement for public health agencies and hospitals, but it really is a community collaboration. Our project around obesity involved many community partners. Morrison County as a community comes together to increase the health and livelihood of their neighbors. It's fun to see that what started as a county project is now coming together as a community project.”

About Sourcewell

Sourcewell (formerly National Joint Powers Alliance) is a self-supporting government organization, partnering with education, government, and nonprofits to boost student and community success. Created in 1978 as one of Minnesota’s nine service cooperatives, we offer training and shared services to our central-Minnesota members. Throughout North America, we offer a cooperative purchasing program with more than 325 awarded vendors on contract. Sourcewell is driven by service and the ability to strategically reinvest in member communities.