By Taylor Knopf
It’s the community gardens popping up around town. It’s baked chicken and water added to the church congregational lunches. It’s the new weight lifting equipment at the community college. These are some of the small ways Halifax County is fighting back against obesity and heart disease.
In 2015 and the years preceding, Halifax County came in almost dead last North Carolina’s county health rankings at 99 out of 100.
The local medical community was alarmed by this rating, and by the number of people suffering complications from hypertension, cancer and heart disease. Patients were coming in with diabetes-related amputations and blindness, said Audrey Hardy, a nurse and community health coordinator for Halifax Regional.
In response, Hardy said, the medical community formed the Roanoke Valley Community Health Initiative. The group talked about changing the healthcare landscape from caring for people who are already sick to preventing disease. An additional motivation was cost: Practicing “sick care” and treating chronic diseases is costly and patients didn’t always have the best insurance.
“Maybe if we start earlier on the front end, we would see better outcomes in the long run,” Hardy said. “When you look at cancer, diabetes and heart disease, you are looking at a wide gamut of things.”
“What people eat and how much they move,” she said. “That was the common denominator we could latch onto and try to do something about.”
Halifax is a rural area with few parks, playgrounds or places to exercise. It also has many areas that are considered food deserts. The county seat, the city of Halifax, doesn’t have a grocery store. Drive through Roanoke Rapids, and you’ll find a plethora of empty stores with faded signs and fast food joints, but few places to get fresh fruits or vegetables.
People from health, education, government, faith and community service sectors came together to help the residents of Halifax County eat healthier foods and be more active.
In 2017, Halifax County’s ranking notched up to 96th.
“We are not pleased with our health rankings. Though it’s improved, we still have a long way to go,” said Halifax County Commissioner Chairman Vernon Bryant.
Parks and Rec
“We are trying to do a lot of things with the health initiative program without using taxpayer money,” Bryant said. “There are lots of volunteers. Strategically, we have a plan of how to move things where they need to go.”
“I’m excited about the Parks and Rec program,” he said, despite the fact the county doesn’t have an official parks and recreation department. But county officials formed an advisory committee last year to make recommendations to the county commissioners and “unify communities by providing social outlets for healthy activities and overall well-being.”
For example, there are few playgrounds and walking trails for people to exercise. As part the health initiative, through a health initiative survey, residents were asked what they wanted. The youth asked for a skate park. One just opened last year at T. J. Davis Recreation Center next to the outdoor swimming pools. There is a “map of play” there that shows all the new and renovated places in the county kids can play.
A walking trail and outdoor interactive exercise equipment is another new feature added in 2015 at Halifax Community College for the public to use. More projects like these are in the works.
“I’m excited about Halifax County. Period,” Bryant said.
Partners in Faith
Halifax County may not have many playgrounds, but the county does have a lot of churches.
“Church is a common way people are coming together regularly,” Hardy said. “We needed to tap into that. Churches are one of our strengths.”
In the last year, Halifax churches have started community gardens and sponsored monthly play days for kids, hosting activities such as swimming classes.
The church congregations of Calvary Baptist and Park Baptist started a garden in Roanoke Rapids on Park Baptist’s land. One neighbor said they harvested as many as 400 cucumbers each day during peak season along with many other vegetables such as broccoli, butter beans and squash. Some families have individual rows, and if they have leftovers, they are encouraged to donate to local soup kitchens.
“They have been able to bless abundantly well,” said Ruth Gee, volunteer coordinator of the Partners in Faith arm of the health initiative.
About 45 churches have joined the effort, she said, and 15 to 20 are regularly involved.
“Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth,” Gee said, quoting the biblical Book of John as she began a presentation at the North Carolina Institute of Medicine annual meeting in late September at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh.
“It’s not just the body or the soul, it’s the entire being that we are about,” Gee said. “Faith doesn’t have to be a religion. Faith is what you believe in. And this is a cause we believe in.”
Learning healthy eating
Partners in Faith is also deeply involved in hosting healthy cooking classes.
Church and community members have learned to make apple pumpkin soup, black bean burgers and 20-minute collards. In the South, people traditionally boil collards in fat for up to two hours, which reduces its nutritional value. During the class, people learned how to saute collards with spices to retain the beneficial nutrients.
Students also learned how to make healthier desserts.
“It’s hard to break an old habit. When you want a pound cake, you want a good old-fashioned pound cake made with butter, eggs and all that good stuff,” Gee said. “But what they did — and it tasted just as good — they used sour cream and skim milk.”
Churches are starting to offer more options during congregational meals as well. Instead of only providing fried chicken and sweet tea, they will offer baked chicken and water also, Gee said.
“We don’t force anything, but we give them choices,” she said.[sponsor]
In addition to cooking classes, last year the health initiative started a food-of-the-month program through the local pediatricians’ offices.
Parents receive an actual piece of produce with a fact sheet about it and a suggested recipe. The idea is to introduce people to food they might not usually buy and give them an easy, healthy way to prepare it.
Pediatricians have given out produce such as kiwi, oranges, zucchini, tomatoes and apples.
Hardy said the apples came with a microwave applesauce recipe without the preservatives, sugar and corn syrup. She said she’s gotten a lot of positive feedback from the pediatricians.
Farmers’ market and corner stores
The Farmers’ Market on NC Highway 158 in Roanoke Rapids, has become a central place for everyone to learn about the health initiative and its activities.
“Farmers’ market prices were considered high cost and only for the well off,” said Chester Williams. “But that’s not true. It has some of the lowest prices around and it’s for everyone.”
Williams wears many hats. In addition to chairing the county’s parks and recreation advisory board, he founded a nonprofit, A Better Chance, A Better Community, calling himself the Chief Empowerment Officer.
The Farmers’ Market now takes food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). People can go to the market’s office and exchange SNAP dollars for market tokens, and the market office reimburses the farmers that same day. Williams said this helps with the shame some people feel using SNAP.
Williams also advises a group of young people who are working to introduce healthy food options into corner stores around the county. The youth have visited Raleigh to make their case. So far there are seven healthy corner stores in the area.
Hardy said kids like to shop at corner stores for snacks, and if they don’t have options, they will eat what’s there.
“We stopped waiting on that cavalry horse and started putting resources forward to save ourselves,” Williams said, adding that a few years ago, he didn’t believe Halifax could make this much improvement in such a short time.
“We want to be up there with Chapel Hill,” Williams said. “We recognize that we made mistakes and are changing that.”