The southern Oregon town of Chiloquin is nestled among pine trees and a scenic river. Railroad tracks pass a shuttered grain elevator and cut through much of the boarded-up downtown. Weeds sprout along streets that lack sidewalks. On the main street, a frayed American flag flutters from a pole with a sign that asks drivers not to drink.
Not far away, a block-sized park is silent. It’s a sunny afternoon. The nearby grade school let out an hour earlier, but the asphalt basketball court, jungle gym, slide, and grassy field are empty.
The park and the town itself are the subject of a multistate initiative that is led by the Oregon State University Extension Service. The program aims to identify environmental factors in rural communities that support or hinder physical activity and healthy eating, and then enable residents to make appropriate changes. The ultimate goal is to help rural kids maintain a healthy weight by choosing playgrounds over PlayStations and broccoli over burgers.
The $5 million, five-year project, called GROW Healthy Kids and Communities, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Launched by Extension faculty in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2011, the program is taking place in Clackamas, Columbia, and Klamath counties in Oregon and in five other western states.
“Rural childhood obesity is an issue that has come up in the last 35 to 40 years,” said Laurie Wayne, an Extension educator for the project in Klamath County, where it’s taking place in the tiny farming town of Bonanza and in Chiloquin, which is home to the Klamath Tribes government.
Nationwide, 35.2 percent of small-town and rural children ages 10 to 17 were overweight or obese versus 30.4 percent of urban kids, according to a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re hoping that the information we get from the three counties in Oregon and the other western states will help rural communities all over the country understand what kinds of changes it makes sense to enact to help their kids be more healthy,” Wayne said.
“Chiloquin faces challenges similar to many communities in rural Oregon,” she added, “but they do what they can to make a good life for families. In Chiloquin, there’s a summer academy for kids, a new community center, and a corps of concerned and active residents.”
As part of the GROW program, organizers equipped local residents with camera-enabled GPS mapping devices. The mappers then used them to shoot photos of environmental features in their towns—like vending machines and no bike lanes—that influence children’s and families’ eating and exercise habits.
“We’re a food desert,” said a woman called Sam, who was one of the mappers in Chiloquin and is a Master Food Preserver with OSU Extension. “The nearest real supermarket is almost 30 miles away. We do have two little stores in Chiloquin, but the choices are slim to none in healthful choices. They do have milk, but it’s almost $5 a gallon. If you stand outside and watch what kids buy, it’s garbage.”
Mappers also photographed the park in Chiloquin. “In the city park here, there are young adults who hang around the edges and create an unsafe feeling,” Wayne said. “Parents don’t feel comfortable bringing their little kids to play. The basketball court isn’t covered, so much of the year it’s either covered by snow or it’s being baked by the sun.”
Mappers then showed their photos at public meetings where attendees offered suggestions for dealing with the problems. “The meeting was a motivator to talk about what we could do as a community to combat some of these things that we’re facing,” said mapper Delia Sanchez, a parent and Klamath tribal descendant. As a result of that meeting, Sanchez said, she coordinated the planting of a garden to feed students at Chiloquin Elementary School.
In Bonanza, the town hall elicited various recommendations and comments. A photo of the minimart spawned a conversation about fast food, sugar, and carbohydrates. A picture of a park caused participants to mention that the bathrooms are closed because of vandalism and to suggest that the park board unlock them. Another photo of a playground prompted a participant to note that it becomes a “muddy, flooded mess” when it rains.
In Molalla in Clackamas County, the mapping project and community conversation prompted action that resulted in an elementary school securing a grant to build a public fitness trail on school property.
As part of the project, the Extension team will survey kids and their families about their eating and exercise habits. They’ve already assessed how the schools perform in the areas of nutrition and physical activity. They also measured the height and weight of about 1,900 grade schoolers and will ask some to wear pedometers to record their activity during the school day. The program aims to determine if there’s a correlation between the students’ weight, food consumption, and activity levels and their home, school, and community environments. For example, they might see if students are healthier when schools have daily gym class or salad bars.
Based on their findings, Extension educators will recommend research-based, customized strategies (for example, installing a certain type of playground equipment) that communities, schools, and families can implement to promote habitual healthy eating and physical activity.
“It’s really,” Wayne said, “all about learning how communities and Extension can work together to help kids develop healthy lives.”