Courtesy of the LSU AgCenter
Mark Fenton, national public health, planning, and transportation consultant, conducts a walkability audit with the St. Helena Healthy Communities Coalition in Greensburg, Louisiana.
Tensas Parish has three towns, over 250 farms, and just one full-service grocery store. You won’t find the commodity farmers of St. Joseph, Waterproof, and Newellton selling their soybeans and cotton at a Saturday market; and their names are not printed on local restaurants’ menus. Instead, the rural parish is burdened by the not mutually exclusive fact of its 40.8% obesity rate. But soon the scant five thousand residents of this food desert might be able to reverse the troubling statistic, with a little ignition from the LSU AgCenter.
Tensas is one of four parishes in Louisiana (along with St. Helena, Madison, and newly adopted West Feliciana) spotlighted by the Healthy Communities program. With federal grants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recruited individual states’ cooperative extensions—which connect land grant colleges, like LSU and Southern University, and their research to agricultural producers and small business owners—into a nationwide initiative. “CDC got a pool of money from Congress to work with extensions [on the obesity issue] since they already have a presence in rural communities,” said Elisabeth Altazan, LSU AgCenter’s Healthy Communities program manager. “The big goal was reaching rural communities that had an over 40% obesity rate. Sixteen parishes were eligible from Louisiana, which is a lot.”
The AgCenter has a wealth of experience in health-oriented programming, but a cooking class or yoga demonstration only occupies a body so long. “When we talk to people about health, the first thing they think about is some kind of program. ‘Can I go to a nutrition class?’ That’s not really the direction we’re trying to go with this. We’re trying to focus on things in the bigger picture that influence health,” said Altazan.
“The big goal was reaching rural communities that had an over 40% obesity rate. Sixteen parishes were eligible from Louisiana, which is a lot.”
With a grant from the CDC awarded in September 2015, the AgCenter’s agents (with Southern University partners) took a year to sit down with the citizens of Tensas, St. Helena, and Madison and register the particular obstacles faced on the road to fitness. “We started these community coalitions,” said Altazan, “and something that always comes up with the older residents is ‘We want things to be like they used to.’”
What Went Wrong?
Two highways compress downtown Greensburg. St. Joseph has brown water and mismanaged funds. In Tallulah, “unwanted businessmen” gather at the centrally-located fairgrounds to peddle their products, and families stay home.
Alongside hearing these citizen complaints, the AgCenter began by recording community assets—such as public parks, 4H programming, and restaurants that serve healthy options—and thoughts on what an ideal parish and its infrastructure would offer a resident. “From there, we made this big asset map for every parish,” said Altazan. Pennington Biomedical Research Center helped the AgCenter plot local food retailers and physical activity resources. When revealed, the maps were met with surprise from the community coalitions. “That seems to be a common occurrence in rural communities,” said Altazan. “If they do have services, they don’t typically know where to go to get them.”
The CDC flexed its national muscle by coordinating visits throughout the year from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit The Food Trust as well as public health, planning, and transportation consultant Mark Fenton. The Food Trust toured each parish’s grocery stores and strategized with the coalitions on healthy food access. “They have a coding system, like healthy is green, semi-healthy is yellow, unhealthy is red,” said Altazan. “They’ll put these around the stores to let consumers know what’s a good item and what should be reconsidered. They’re also looking at doing healthy foods aisles in these stores, if the store owners will agree to take out the candy and chips on just one aisle and put in healthier options, like grab-and-go fruit.”
Courtesy of the LSU AgCenter
In September 2015, the CDC awarded a federal grant to LSU AgCenter and Southern University AgCenter to implement the Healthy Communities initiative in Tensas Parish, St. Helena Parish, and Madison Parish.
On Fenton’s visit, each community received a walkability audit; a champion for pedestrians, Fenton stressed to the coalitions the importance of the built environment for both health and economic development. As opposed to urban food deserts, rural food deserts suffer not just from a dearth of grocery stores, but limited transportation options as well. Those assets and resources for fitness, even as bright spots on a map, remain out of reach for a resident without a car.
But the pedestrian-friendly shoulders and sidewalks won’t materialize tomorrow. Long-term efforts like installing bike lanes and revitalizing neighborhoods will have to be sustained by cities, not the outside experts and AgCenter agents. “This project is really dependent on trust and getting buy-in from the communities,” said Altazan.
Take the Money and Run
West Feliciana Parish is undergoing its own year of planning and community mapping in 2017; but for Tensas, St. Helena, and Madison, it’s time for the citizens and leadership to act on their own wishes. The Tensas coalition aims to encourage cycling in Newellton. AgCenter agents will help Madison Parish lead a “Take Back Your Park” crime prevention training for Tallulah residents. In St. Helena Parish’s Greensburg—where a proposed “Taste of Greensburg” festival will highlight the area’s greens—a coalition meeting in early January struggled with how to recruit more of the necessary locals to the movement.
Lucie Monk Carter
Bianca Plant of the LSU AgCenter leads a coalition meeting in St. Helena Parish in early January.
Charlene Gordon and her husband Ellison, avid coalition members since the summer, have seen efforts to improve Greensburg fail before. “We would have breakfasts and invite the pastors of all the churches to come,” said Charlene. “We wanted to discuss improving our city, having better access for our young people to walk to the park and something for them to do once they get to the park. I mean, there’s nothing there. No swings, no equipment, nothing. We would meet, we’d discuss, we’d talk about proposals and talk about what we were going to do. We never got any action, though.” Over the months, attendance dwindled until the meetings stopped altogether. This time, she hopes the AgCenter’s organization and its grant funds will make the difference.
But the pedestrian-friendly shoulders and sidewalks won’t materialize tomorrow. Long-term efforts like installing bike lanes and revitalizing neighborhoods will have to be sustained by cities, not the outside experts and AgCenter agents.
There is an assumed simplicity in rural life. But the Gordons have lived in its loose weave for twenty-one years, and their needs, let alone wants, aren’t so handily met. Charlene, who has lost seventy pounds at her doctor’s behest, drives to Kentwood for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Breaking off into new committees at the meeting’s end, the coalition prioritized improvement to its green spaces and the formation of youth sports leagues, both baby steps toward larger dreams of a walkable downtown and parents running alongside their little athletes. Charlene expressed confidence that the Greensburg Market will soon redecorate its candy-lined entranceway with leafy, fresh produce.
Sure, these are just seeds, but the real bloom will outlive the AgCenter’s observations. In five years, frustrated coalition members like the Gordons and police juror Major Coleman could live in a cohesive community where daily walks and farm-to-table suppers are not just possible but hard to elude.
“Health is not just individual behaviors—it’s influenced by all these other factors,” said Altazan. “Really, the whole project is about making the healthy choice easier.”