Interdisciplinary group working to improve health in rural Georgia

·4 min read

Aug. 27—MORGAN — When Healthier Together Calhoun launched in 2017, the mission was simple: help county residents live healthier lives by improving access to healthy foods and physical activity. But Calhoun County resident Mark Strickland wasn't convinced.

"These were pie-in-the-sky dreams, and when we first started I thought there was no way this is going to ever do anything," Strickland said. "I was wrong."

Through participating in Healthier Together, Strickland said he began to concentrate on eating better, walking more, and generally taking better care of himself. And over the past two years, he lost more than 100 pounds.

"It's increased my sense of pride in my community because we achieved this," he said.

Calhoun is one of five rural Georgia counties — including Clay, Dooly, Stewart and Taliaferro counties — participating in Healthier Together, a project where an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students at the University of Georgia and UGA Extension partnered with the community to increase access to healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

Many rural communities in Georgia have limited access to grocery stores that supply healthy food, creating barriers that can ultimately lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes in both children and adults.

Working with rural communities to help find solutions to address inadequate nutrition and physical inactivity is a primary goal of the program, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The Healthier Together project has been an ideal partnership between UGA Extension and the College of Public Health," Laura Perry Johnson, associate dean for extension at UGA, said. "This multiyear project has truly allowed us to build capacity for health and wellness in the targeted communities that will go on long after the project is completed.

"The engagement of the community coalitions, coupled with the expertise of the university partners and the support of the CDC, has been a model for impacting positive change."

Extension agents work and live in rural communities throughout Georgia where they provide face-to-face programming and interventions related to healthy food, which is vital to achieving the goals of the Healthier Together program. Extension has helped ensure that important resources are provided to communities, including helping plan and plant community gardens and providing increased capacity for storing healthy foods in local stores and food pantries.

To date, Healthier Together has helped community members build 18 community gardens, producing fresh seasonal vegetables for numerous families.

Diane Lee, a resident of Stewart County, waters the Richland Garden every Wednesday. Sometimes neighbors who are busy or don't have transportation will reach out and ask Lee to bring them vegetables from the garden.

"It has been an outstanding project for our area," she said. "For me personally, it gets me up every morning and gets me going because I have to go check the garden."

Extension agents are a vital part of the success of the community gardens as they provide research-based information for the garden on what should be planted, the best way to water the garden, and how to avoid pests and disease. In addition, extension agents support the gardens by finding volunteers, planning harvest days and distribution events, monitoring what is needed and assisting with daily garden tasks. There are also community gardens located at extension offices in Calhoun County and Stewart County.

The program also has helped increase the capacity of seven food pantries and provided five refrigerators and freezers to help food pantries and other local stores carry produce and dairy.

Healthier Together programming and projects have helped build a culture of health within the community, giving residents access to health education, healthy foods and spaces for physical activity.

Four new community gardens are planned for 2022 and 2023.

"There are counties throughout the state that were looking at what we did, like Calhoun County, and it's getting them excited and giving them ideas for projects they can do to improve the lifestyle of their fellow citizens," Strickland said. "It's driven from the heart and our love for each other. It's a beautiful thing."

The Healthier Together project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between UGA Extension, the College of Public Health, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the College of Environment and Design, and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. For more information about everything the Healthier Together project is working on, visit https://site.extension.uga.edu/healthiertogether/.