Cook County, Ga.

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

Fertile soil, a warm climate and a rich agricultural heritage define rural Cook County. Its farmers grow an array of fruits and vegetables, from greens, squash, beans and tomatoes, to peaches, berries, cantaloupes and watermelons. And its people share an appreciation for the importance and tradition of farming—an appreciation that will play a key role as the south-central Georgia county aims to become a healthy home for children and families.

Cook can’t be called that now. Despite its bountiful harvests, its predominantly White and African-American population faces serious health problems. The obesity rate tops 29 percent and the diabetes rate exceeds 9 percent, both of which are higher than the state average. The county is one of the ten poorest in Georgia, with a per capita income under $20,000, and two-thirds of all students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

But the Cook County Family Connection (CCFC) has brought together more than 40 partners to tackle the county’s health challenges by taking advantage of the current political will. Since early 2009, local leaders have been making physical activity, healthy eating and obesity prevention a countywide priority. Community groups are planning farmers' markets and community gardens, faith-based groups and civic clubs are creating new recreational options for youth, and local agencies are collaborating to identify further opportunities.

CCFC intends to build on this motivation for the county’s nearly 17,000 residents.

The partnership will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to work with policy-makers to help children be more active and improve families’ access to locally grown produce. It’s looking to create joint-use agreements between schools and the county so fields, tracks and gyms will be available even when school is not in session. In Adel, the county seat, it’s targeting a change in city zoning regulations to allow a farmers' market and produce vendors at an old train depot.

“One thing we want to do is create mobile farmers' markets to help people who are unable to come to town as often as they’d like,” said project coordinator Lydia McDaniel. “Two of my great-grandfathers pushed grocery carts around the county and sold groceries to farmers. We don’t do that now, but I think we should. So that instead of the ice cream truck coming, it’s the produce truck.”

One of CCFC’s greatest strengths is the breadth of support it garners. Its own board includes the county health director and schools superintendent, an Adel city councilman and an area bank vice president.

CCFC’s relationship with the Adel News Tribune will aid its expanded efforts. Through the partnership, it will look to publish articles highlighting progress and showing other community members how to get involved.

“It’s easy to look past the problems,” McDaniel said. “But we want people to acknowledge them, and then get to work trying to change them.”

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