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Forum looks at creating healthy communities

William Burleson, communications coordinator for the Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives, discusses the importance of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Statewide Health Improvement Program in a Friday evening forum at the Hampton Inn & Suites. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

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A forum on healthy communities started with a group sing-a-long Friday evening as about 30 people gathered at the Hampton Inn & Suites to celebrate regional successes through the Statewide Health Improvement Program.

“I’ve been involved in SHIP strategies … and I really believe that the investment that the state made in implementing wellness programs, educational programs, programs that improve the health of our communities, is a really, really smart investment and an investment that needs to continue,” said Warren Larson, director of public affairs for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, who emceed the forum.

Under the Minnesota Department of Health, SHIP programs were implemented throughout the state following a $47 million allocation from the state Legislature in 2008 with the goal of preventing disease before it starts.

SHIP works with community partners to foster programs that can lead individuals and families to take up healthier lifestyles with the ultimate goal of combating obesity and tobacco use.

“We’re the Department of Health; we’re here to protect and improve the health of all Minnesotans and we take that job very seriously,” said William Burleson, communications coordinator for the Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives.

Burleson said the state learned it is not enough to simply educate people about making better food choices, or doing more physical activity because in many places, there are barriers to doing so.

For instance, if you live on the Grand Portage Reservation and it’s a 30-minute trip to obtain fresh apples, “how many apples do you think kids eat there?” he said.

Or, for students who attend Dowling Elementary in Minneapolis, there is no sidewalk for those who could possibly walk to school to be able to do so, he said.

For nonsmokers living in apartment complexes filled with smokers, they can’t really avoid second-hand smoke, he said.

Burleson, listing just a few of the many initiatives sponsored through SHIP, said there now are 143,000 students benefitting from the Safe Routes to School program, which aims to help more kids walk and bike to school through infrastructure improvements; more than 235,000 students benefitting from the Farm to School program, which provides fresh foods to school students; and now 59 college campuses are in the process of becoming smoke-free.

“The first thing that is so impressive about SHIP is that it’s giving people the capacity to act,” said Josh Larson, coordinator of North Country SHIP.

North Country SHIP serves Lake of the Woods, Beltrami, Hubbard and Clearwater counties and had more than 100 partners last year, Larson noted.

“We wouldn’t be able to do anything without these partnerships,” he said. “The thing that SHIP has really done is given those people the capacity to act, the power to make changes in the settings that they have the power to make changes in.”

For instance, a school administrator can enact change within his school, a mayor within her town, an employer within his company.

“One of the things that we see as a real strength of the SHIP program is the leadership at the local level,” said Jeanne Ayers, the assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Several examples of successful initiatives were highlighted, including a school garden and salad bar at the Kelliher Public School.

“I don’t know what was more fun, having every single grade pick a crop (to plant) … or if the harvest was more fun,” said superintendent Tim Lutz of the school’s garden. “Picking potatoes was like an Easter egg hunt.”

The garden provided snacks for students in the afternoon, opportunities for hands-on learning, and also helped form a “stone soup” that the school fed to community members who attended a health fair.

“It was more than just having a garden, it was having an opportunity for kids to go outside and get some exercise,” Lutz said.

As for the salad bar, between one-third and one-half of all students partake in its offerings on any given day, said math teacher John Carlson.

Adults, as well as children, benefit from SHIP initiatives as well, speakers said.

TEAM Industries in Bagley implemented a worksite wellness program, through the help of SHIP and Blue Cross Blue Shield, to increase the health of its employees.

The business implemented sports team competitions, such as softball and bowling; created a fitness room at its Park Rapids plant; provided more healthy snack options; and offered employees discounts on health premiums if they partook in annual biometric evaluations and health risk assessments.

More than 40 TEAM employees took part in a “Bigger Loser” weight-loss competition and lost more than a combined 300 pounds, or 40 gallons of fat, said Bonnie Engen, director of the Clearwater County Nursing Service, noting that the business’ health plan premiums did not increase, for the first time ever, for 2013.

Yet, SHIP is about more than offering more choices and educating the public, speakers said. It’s about fostering a different way of thinking.

Ayers said as development moved from first- and second-ring suburbs to the exurbs, there often were developments that did not include sidewalks, yet traffic was constantly driving down those side streets.

“Kids who used to walk a mile to their friends’ house and then run back home for lunch … need to be put in a car (to get home) because it’s not safe to walk from one cul-de-sac to another,” she said.“That’s how our environment changes our way of being healthy.”