Benton County, Ore.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

There is not a single supermarket in all of South Benton County. People living in South Corvallis have to take a bus at least 10 miles to reach the discount grocery store in North Corvallis. Residents in the surrounding rural areas must travel much farther. Even the twice-weekly Corvallis Farmers’ Market isn’t easily reached by foot or bicycle by many residents in this part of the county.

Such distances and scant options are at the top of the list of challenges that the Benton County Health Department (BCHD) is tackling through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative. Its goal is to narrow disparities by improving access to affordable healthy foods for at-risk families, who include the migrant and seasonal farm workers sustaining the thriving agricultural base of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“We’re sitting right here in farmland, but so many people don’t have access to the locally grown, healthy produce,” said project director Tatiana Dierwechter.

The department wants to work with its community partners to change the food landscape by developing mobile farmers' markets and new community gardens, ensuring healthier options at small convenience stores and stimulating supermarket development in South Corvallis, population 5,400. A former livestock auction yard has been identified as the likeliest location for a supermarket.

BCHD also wants to make regular physical activity easier for people. Despite the county’s miles of bike lanes, being active is hardly a ride or walk in the park in its rural areas. South Corvallis and other small communities have developed along State Highway 99W, often without attention to enhancing main streets or pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Moreover, some local parks are in disrepair, lack the playground equipment and picnic areas to attract children and families or have limited-use restrictions.

The initiative will involve elementary and middle school students in assessing barriers to walking and biking in the community. Their data will be used to inform city, county and state transportation plans.

The health department has numerous project partners, from Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to the Willamette Neighborhood Housing Tenant Services and Strengthening Rural Families. The groups will work closely with the local Latino population, which is expected to nearly triple over the next decade, to make certain its needs are being addressed.

Children in South Benton County face serious health problems. One in five eighth-graders is overweight or obese. But BCHD and its partners are confident their initiative can make a difference. They hope to amplify the leadership and advocacy activities already under way within the county’s Latino and rural communities, including recruitment of “health ambassadors.”

Together, all of it could be the catalyst needed.

“Being a relatively small community, we can actually get all of our partners around the table at the same time,” Dierwechter explained. “That will be so important as we continue to build relationships and put our plan into action.”

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