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County sets sights on tackling smoking and obesity

Kandiyohi County has received a two-year grant to implement an initiative to improve the health of residents here. The county's Public Health Department will work with entities such as schools, work sites and health care facilities to adopt policies and procedures to create a healthy environment that could reduce chronic diseases, especially those associated with smoking and obesity.

"Obesity and tobacco are the two greatest health challenges in our country," said Ann Stehn, director of the Kandiyohi County Public Health Department.

The Statewide Health Improvement Program, known as SHIP, was launched in 2007 and funded in the 2008 legislative session, with implementation to begin this month.

Counties had to compete for the grant and agree to provide the labor involved with developing and carrying out a community action plan that will focus on obesity and tobacco use in order to address the top preventable causes of illness and death in the United States.

Stehn said that about 40 counties will receive the grant. The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners approved the contract at the regular meeting Tuesday.

Kandiyohi County will receive $189,000 in the first year and $238,000 in the second year.

The goal of the program is to help people live "longer, healthier lives" by addressing long-term health issues, Stehn said. The easiest way to create a healthy environment is to make the "healthy choice the easy choice."

She said, for example, changes in tobacco laws have made it easier for people to choose not to smoke or to quit smoking. That slow environmental change was started years ago when entities such as schools agreed to become tobacco-free and eliminated the smoky teachers' lounges. No one would consider lighting up in a workplace now, where it was commonplace in the past.

It's hoped that other actions can be implemented to provide sustainable programs for reducing tobacco use and obesity that will have far-reaching health effects on people.

County public health staff will serve as facilitators and provide technical assistance to help entities create policies that will help improve the health of people through environmental and behavioral changes.

Some of those changes could be as simple as a workplace agreeing to add healthy snacks in the vending machines or as encompassing as an emphasis on creating and utilizing trails for safe biking and hiking options to get around the community.

Stehn said they'll be looking for workplaces that are "rearing to go" to work to implement new changes.

For the last five years a similar program has been under way in Willmar in the Steps to a Healthier Willmar program.

Willmar was one of five cities in that state program, which ends this year, and likely enhanced Kandiyohi County's chances to be selected for the county-wide program. Stehn said there will be a "seamless transition" as the Willmar program moves to a county-wide program.

Willmar schools were involved with the Steps program and Stehn said they've already begun working with the New London-Spicer School District.

Changing the "environment and the norms that we're surrounded with" is "very challenging work," said Stehn. But the benefits could be Kandiyohi County residents who live longer, healthier lives.

There's no time to lose.

Stehn has already begun putting a community leadership team in place and could have a plan of action in place within a month. "We absolutely have to hit the ground running," she said.


Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750