The Tooele County Health Department is declaring war on the county’s obesity problem.
A group of nearly 30 community leaders joined together Wednesday morning to form a coalition to combat obesity over the next five years. The group is one of four being formed as part of the county’s Community Health Improvement Plan, which aims to address five local health problems: obesity, substance abuse, diabetes, physical activity and access to health care.
The obesity and physical activity subcommittee is made up of representatives from Tooele County, Tooele City, Grantsville City, the Erda Planning Commission, Mountain West Medical Center, the Tooele County Health Department, Tooele County Chamber of Commerce, Valley Mental Health, Tooele County School District, Department of Workforce Services and local diabetes specialists, nutritionists and physician’s assistants.
Bucky Whitehouse, community services supervisor for the health department, said the health department also plans on getting smaller communities, like Stockton, Rush Valley and Vernon involved in the initiative through social media and meeting with town leaders and mayors.
Tooele County’s obesity rate currently sits at 30.7 percent, highest in the state of Utah, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whitehouse said that’s mainly related to two factors.
“From a nutrition standpoint, we have a high commuting workforce,” Whitehouse said. “Many citizens need more information on how to eat nutritiously on a budget and with not much time to prepare food. Also, we’ve found a high number of people who have cited that they don’t feel like they have physical opportunities in the county. We have them, but people are unaware of what they can be doing.”
Whitehouse said because these seem to be two of the biggest contributors to Tooele County’s obesity epidemic, representatives from the obesity subcommittee have divided into five smaller subgroups to focus on the following: physical activity, nutrition, worksite awareness, school awareness and health care awareness.
Over the next five years, the health department will work to decrease the obesity rate to 10 percent. Whitehouse said although this is a lofty goal, the health department feels it’s attainable. Currently, the national obesity rate is 35.7 percent, according to the CDC.
“One of our first goals is to improve in the communication or outreach going on between agencies,” Whitehouse said. “A lot of programs are already going on in the community that we want to improve upon by getting information out about them. The question is how can we bring all the stakeholders together to more effectively publicize what’s already being offered in the community?”
Whitehouse said while gathering information for the Community Health Improvement Plan, 327 county residents participated in a Dan Jones and Associates survey conducted in July 2010. Many of those surveyed said they knew of Gold’s Gym and Anytime Fitness, but because they couldn’t afford gym memberships, they didn’t know where else to go to exercise.
Health officials hope to decrease obesity by increasing weight status awareness in relation to healthy norms through social media, workshops and educational campaigns. In addition, they will promote good nutrition and weight control by starting weight management classes through partnerships with county businesses. Currently, targeting specific things like soda or junk foods in vending machines at schools or workplaces is not part of the plan, but Whitehouse said this is something that will most likely be looked at by the nutrition subgroup. The plan intends to increase nutritional awareness by increasing the number of food service establishments with easily accessible nutritional information by 50 to 100 percent, and establishing partnerships with local farmers to increase the number of community farmer’s markets.
Health officials will also work with the Department of Workforce Services to allow food stamps to be used at farmer’s markets, utilize social media to provide healthy lifestyle tips, establish partnerships with schools and food service establishments that will lead to providing healthier options and published nutritional information, and explore ways to increase public awareness of local parks.
The health department would like to work with Tooele County to require walking trails, community gardens and bike stations in all new subdivisions. It would also like to see bike lanes added along some streets like 200 West and 100 East from 400 South to 1000 North in Tooele, a recreation center built adjacent to high schools and a sidewalk built on Droubay Road between Vine Street and Utah Avenue.
Malaena Toohey, health educator and obesity prevention coordinator for the health department, said when it comes to physical activity, it’s important to find out what the county already has to offer.
“The first step is finding out everything that exists as far as physical activity goes, and then put it out there on Facebook, in the newspaper or on posters on fences,” she said. “We need to let the community know what’s available and go from there.”
Toohey said federal grants will help make some health infrastructure projects a reality.
“There are plenty of grants out there that can be used to build bike lanes or trails, but to apply for these we need a functioning group that will jump on it when those applications come out,” she said. “Now that we have these groups, we can work together to apply for grants. There’s a lot of funding out there to improve physical fitness.”
Eileen DeLeeuw, Tooele County Diabetes Coalition coordinator, said an idea that members of her diabetes coalition came up with is hosting an annual health fair in the county that focuses specifically on obesity and the other four health issues CHIP identified.
Terra Sherwood, youth services coordinator for Tooele City, said the city’s newest park, Skyline Nature Park, provides several physical activity resources with stationary fitness equipment and the NEOS system, an interactive fitness game. In addition, Sherwood works with around 100 kids each summer at the community garden on Vine Street. The group learns how to garden as well as the importance of nutrition and eating well.
“Over the past year we’ve been trying to make our activities fun and get families involved,” she said. “We have a lot of recreational programs that are considered non-traditional, like the community garden.”
Debbie Winn, executive director of the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce, said when it comes to businesses, she’d like to see workplaces implement a way that employees can get just a few minutes of exercise in during the workday.
“A lot of places allow their employees to go for a smoke break, so let’s take a step in the opposite direction and go out for an exercise break,” she said.
Toohey said now that the subcommittee has been divided into five smaller subgroups, she’d love to see community members come to those meetings to provide their input.
“It would be wonderful to have community members on board,” she said. “The community has a lot to offer, too, and we need to work hand in hand.”
The five small subgroups plan to meet monthly, while the entire obesity subcommittee plans to meet quarterly. Initiatives will be implemented as they are formed, and initiatives that are already in place will be publicized through outreach tactics such as social media and posters or fliers to increase community awareness.
“The end goal is that we would like to see a reduction in our overall obesity rates for both adults and children,” Whitehouse said. “We know it’s going to take a period of time, but our hope is that the obesity rate will see significant reductions over the next five years.”