Boone-Newton Counties, Ark.

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

Boone and Newton counties occupy more than 1,400 square miles of northwestern Arkansas, from the northern slopes of the Ozark Mountains to the Missouri border. Almost a quarter of the population lives in Harrison, a city of about 12,000 in Boone County, but most people are in small towns or scattered throughout the rural, mountainous region.

It’s a place that lags in opportunity as much as diversity—the population is overwhelmingly White—and entrenched, double-digit poverty rates are among the many challenges it faces. But there is a real sense of community connectedness. Roots here run generations deep for many families, and lives center on children’s activities in school, church, scouting, sports and 4H programs. Capitalizing on these strengths, local leaders have been working for more than a decade to address childhood obesity and other health issues. Harrison in particular has been a model in the region.

The North Arkansas Partnership for Health Education (NAPHE) aims to expand and improve upon these efforts through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Ozarks project. In collaboration with numerous public and private partners throughout the area and state, it is pressing to get children to be more active and to bring more affordable healthy foods to residents.

“In the early 2000s we had a lot of success working with local restaurants on going smoke-free,” recalled project director Rick Hinterthuer. “That gave us confidence. If we could get people to work together to make those changes, we can take on other tough issues, like obesity.”

With Ozark Share and Care, an area food bank, NAPHE plans to establish a system to deliver healthy foods to underserved neighborhoods and more remote parts of the counties. Such a system will be especially important during the summer, when children do not get meals at school. (Many families routinely turn to less-nutritious options. The biggest source of tax revenue in Boone County is fast-food restaurants.)

NAPHE also wants to create a paved walking path connecting Lake Harrison, on Harrison’s south side, to the middle and high schools to the north. Residents then will have another way of reaching a local grocery store and sports complex and children a safe way to walk or bike to school.

Through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities funding, the project will hire a coordinator to spearhead changes in policy with local officials, civic leaders, hospital personnel and school officials.

It already is involving church pastors, community organizers and PTA members. NAPHE is working with the Central Organization for Revitalization and Enhancement, founded by former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, which wants to assist the group’s community health efforts and find innovative ways to help young people, especially those in rural areas.

“When I see more of those community leaders emerge and say ‘I want to be part of this,’ that will be a great sign that we’re doing well,” Hinterthuer said.

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