In the Delta of northwestern Mississippi, a river and its watershed unite three counties of divergent geography, population and economics.
DeSoto County has the most people (154,748); Marshall County the lowest per capita income ($14,028) and education level (40 percent of adults lack a high school diploma); and Tate County the highest rate of adult overweight and obesity (72.7 percent). DeSoto is a suburban county within range of Memphis, while Marshall and Tate are rural counties separated only by an interstate highway.
The upper Coldwater River Watershed that they share is the symbolic driving force behind the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative called Partners and Pathways to Healthy Communities. The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi is spearheading the initiative, which is taking aim at Mississippi’s very unwanted distinction as the heaviest of all 50 states for both adults and children.
The initiative intends to develop a master plan promoting healthy eating and active living in the tri-county area, which currently has only seven free indoor sites for physical activity. The core of the master plan will include greenways for hiking and biking, “blueways” for kayaking and canoeing, and projects such as community and school gardens, farmers' markets, Complete Streets and neighborhood parks.
“Our goal is to get people outdoors, get them moving and into nature,” said project director Peggy Linton. “One way is through the watershed. The watershed is an untapped resource; many residents do not even know it’s in their backyard. That is all going to change.”
The initiative will not be starting from scratch thanks to work begun several years ago by county and municipal governments, local health councils, park associations and the YMCA in DeSoto. Now, in that county and neighboring Marshall and Tate counties, religious congregations, colleges and civic clubs also will join with youths and their families in the effort to educate citizens about environmental and policy changes set forth in the master plan.
“The best part about this project is the diverse group of partners we have brought together, who are locally focused but who also have an interest in improving life in the whole watershed,” Linton said.
Among the changes already taking place are the reopening of walking paths as part of Safe Routes to School; the development of a park at the headwaters of the Coldwater River in Marshall County; the construction of mountain bike trails; and the establishment of community gardens. Partners and Pathways hopes to further these efforts with measures such as:
- Joint-use agreements allowing community access to school playgrounds outside of school hours
- Policies that make healthy foods more available
- A network of farmers' markets.
Bringing together three counties and nine municipal governments will be a challenge, but the partners are determined to help their state lose its heavyweight title. And if progress is made among the White and African-American population of this historically impoverished pocket of Mississippi, the initiative may show the way for others statewide.