A town sign on a snow-covered road.
A town sign on a snow-covered road.

2013 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Empowering People and Inspiring Change

The legions of tourists who visit Manistique, Michigan, each year invariably head to the city’s best known recreational sites including the Seney Wildlife Refuge, multiple lighthouses, a shoreline boardwalk, and the Hiawatha National Forest, which gets over 1.5 million visits a year. And while those stops offer great views, fine fishing and some of the prettiest walks in the U.S., it will take a visit to the three miles of new sidewalks, the weekly school-based Zumba classes and walking groups and the newly created farmers’ markets to truly see the most exciting things happening to the city of Manistique and its almost 4,000 residents.

In just the last four years, Manistique has made great progress toward improving the health of the entire community, with a targeted focus on increasing access to physical activity and healthier foods. This effort was powered initially by funding from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant to the Sault (pronounced Sioux) tribe, who have members living on a reservation in the area, as well as integrated within the greater community.

Improving the Health of the Entire Community

Other recent health-oriented changes in Manistique include “Walk Manistique” signs throughout the region to encourage walking instead of driving, a partnership arrangement that allows veterans to get vision services at the Manistique Tribal Health Center, and the beautiful, and aptly named, Central Park, a new 40-acre haven that includes walking and nature trails, a baseball field and swimming, beach and fishing piers, all on the site of a formerly fallow dumping ground.

A boy hula hoops during a block party.

Culture of Health Prize

The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.

Empowering People for Community Health

Manistique is focusing on improving the health of the entire population by increasing the opportunity for healthy choices. Efforts include a farmer's market which serves low-income families; a non-motorized transportation plan to get everyone out walking and biking safely; and a coordinated school health plan.

Passion and Collaboration Fuel Change

Neither the Sault tribe leaders nor the greater community fully imagined the size and sizzle of the changes now in place when the tribe hired health educator Kerry Ott, MA, CHES, now the Community Coordinator for the Sault Tribes Strategic Alliance for Health Project. But there’s no doubt, says Ott, that the passion and zeal that helped find a new buyer to keep one of the area’s largest employers—the Manistique Papers, Inc. paper mill—from closing is also fueling the success of so many recent projects.

"A cloud of gloom went over everybody when we heard about the paper mill’s bankruptcy because that would destroy this community “says Ott. “But the next morning there was already a different feeling in the town as leaders in the community—from the bank to the governor’s office and everyone in between—put together a plan. It was absolutely incredible,” Ott says. “The mill got a new buyer and they’re hiring, which is phenomenal. It’s such a living, breathing example of the collaborative power that is in this small town to make things happen.”

Ott says Manistique, which ranked 60 out of 82 counties in Michigan in last year’s County Health Rankings, battles many of the same chronic conditions that plague towns and cities across the rest of the nation. “We’re struggling with diabetes and obesity and an aging population, but the tribal and community leaders had been trying to address those issues for years, so they were so ready for broader community-based efforts.”

You can tell just how seriously the Sault tribal leaders took their health improvement goals from the job description they created for Ott’s position. Instead of looking for a health educator to do one on one health counseling, the leaders sought out someone with expertise in community health promotion. “They wanted someone who could take a community-based approach to public health,” said Ott.

Young girls enjoying a healthy lunch in a school cafeteria. Manistique schools provide kids with healthy breakfasts and quality physical education. School faculty say the changes have empowered the kids to be healthy. The Exemplary Physical Education Curriculum is geared toward teaching kids skills that are exciting to them, such as archery and snowshoeing. Efforts also include a farm-to-school program using local farmers to bring produce fresh produce into schools.
The market creates access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at affordable prices for the residents of our community, and allows low-income participants to use coupons. Manistique is one of six winners of the inaugural RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize. A Farmer’s Market serves many low-income families and also benefits local farmers. The market creates access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at affordable prices and allows low-income participants to use coupons. In order create a successful Farmer’s Market, Manistique conducted extensive research and has shared this information with other rural communities.

A Community Approach to Health

Change takes time, but Ott says the city is slowly but surely making environmental changes and systems changes that give people access to healthier foods and physical activity without having to really change their daily routines very much.

"We have a lot of people from a lot of different agencies and just plain old residents of Manistique who are excited about this work. They would take the ideas we stressed and bring them back to their agencies—the hospital, the senior center—and that helped the ideas spread so much faster through the community.”

In 2009, soon after Ott arrived, the city brought in the legendary walkability expert, Dan Burden, who took leaders and residents on a “walking audit” in Manistique and pointed out barriers such as sidewalks that stop in the grass and pose a problem for everyone—someone in a wheelchair, or an able bodied person trying to walk that street when it’s muddy or full of snow.

Ott says the city started from the walking audit and “jumped from there” to implementing a safe routes to school project with the Manistique area schools, and says “that started more people talking.” Next on the list was a non-motorized transportation plan with an engineering firm and a focus group in Manistique. Ott says, “we made sure we had all levels of users as part of that focus group to tell us what’s wrong with the non-motorized transportation access in Manistique and what their greatest dreams are.” The city council adopted the non-motorized transportation plan last year. 

A Plan for Healthier Schools

The CDC grant also included a provision for working in the local schools. Missing a coordinated school health team, the community put one together and for the last three years they have been working on the same goals as they have for the greater community—easier access to physical activity and healthier foods. “We’ve worked on improving the school breakfast and getting more kids to school for breakfast and we’re making some changes in the school lunch program as well as buying local produce for school meals.”

Chris Marana, Physical Education Teacher at Emerald Elementary School, says the changes have empowered the kids. “We want them excited because we want them to be able to take that home and share that excitement with their parents and their families and then be able to sustain their enthusiasm and that level of activity, as they get older,” said Marana.

Better Health for Better Business

Critical to Manistique’s current redevelopment has been the partnerships among all the sectors of the community. It’s clear that sidewalks are really good for the health of the community. But what cemented the deal to get them built for many area partners, says Sheila Aldrich, Manistique City Manager, is that it was also good for the economic health of the community. “Great looking sidewalks and beautiful streets entice businesses and families to move here.”

Students and teachers walking to school using a sidewalk.

Complete Streets

Manistique has a non-motorized transportation plan to get everyone in the community out walking and biking safely. In 2009, the city brought in a walkability expert to conduct a “walking audit” to help identify and eliminate barriers to walking through the town safely. Manistique also implemented a safe routes to school project to help make walking to school safe and routine.

A student shoots an arrow during archery practice. The physical education curriculum teaches kids physical activity skills that they can use for life, like archery and snowshoeing.

"The other thing we’re doing when we talk to local businesses is letting them know that a healthier population means a healthier workforce. They’re stronger; they have less sick days that are more productive, and there are fewer health care costs to the employer. So all of these things are beneficial in both directions. A strong economy, a strong population, they go hand in hand,” said Ott.

One for All and All for One

None of the changes would have been possible, though, if the Sault tribe hadn’t see their role in the larger community. “We have our own distinct community, but we are very much a part of the larger community,” said Aaron Payment, Chairperson for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “A lot of our members are inter-married with non-tribal people, and so we are the community and we’re integrated in the community."

Anything that benefits us benefits the larger community and vice versa.

Aaron Payment, chairperson for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians