Houghton County, Mich.

    • January 11, 2010

Houghton County anchors the tip of Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula, a rugged, sparsely populated forest region bordered on two sides by Lake Superior. People here are used to long, snowy winters. Since 1968, when Houghton’s last copper mines closed, they’ve also endured high rates of poverty and unemployment.

The harsh winter climate poses a barrier to physical activity among area residents. The challenge is even greater for Houghton County’s families of lesser means, who can’t afford gym memberships or costly sports equipment. As is common in rural areas, sidewalks, bike paths and recreational facilities are in short supply. And the geographic isolation means it’s more costly for stores to order and stock produce, which limits residents’ access to affordable fresh foods.

For many in Houghton, a predominantly White county of 34,000, a healthy lifestyle is a daily struggle.

The Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department is leading a movement to revitalize the community’s health and reverse obesity rates as high as 53 percent. The Copper Country Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project includes plans for increasing the supply of affordable nutritious foods and supporting physical activity. The project focuses on the county’s 7,000 children, particularly those from lower-income families.

To promote healthy eating, the project will expand famers' markets and community gardens in the region's three population centers of Houghton, Hancock and Calumet. The aim is to engage more local growers, cultivate enthusiasm for gardening and give more residents access to fresh produce near home, work and school.

“Our schools are a community focal point, and there’s great interest in connecting them to our gardening projects,” explained project director Terry Frankovich. After-school and summer programs will offer students, parents, teachers and other volunteers the opportunity to plant and harvest fresh foods that can be served at school. The project hopes to bring Electronic Benefit Transfer payment systems to produce markets and organic farms so that residents can buy produce with WIC coupons and food stamps.

Advancing Safe Routes to School programs and other policies that support bike lanes, sidewalks and traffic calming devices is central to the program’s strategy for increasing regular physical activity. Plans are under way to coordinate efforts of existing volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations that focus on physical activity programs for youth.

Among those groups is a new advocacy coalition working to develop more back-country trails. It will be instrumental in one of the project’s most ambitious goals: the proposed 50-mile Copper Heritage Trail, to link Houghton County’s small towns and outlying areas and foster recreation or human-powered commuting via foot, bike, skis and snowshoes.

Copper Country Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is partnering with local government agencies, schools and community organizations. An advisory group known as the Healthy Families Consortium is helping with assessment and planning.

“Our vision for this project was inspired by the success of a local preschool obesity-prevention initiative,” Frankovich said. “Parents and kids were making changes, but we realized the whole community needed to change to help families get healthy and stay healthy.”