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Health Department grants focus on nutrition, pedestrian safety

For more information, visit www.localmotion.org.

BRATTLEBORO—The Vermont Department of Health has released funding to help make Windham County a healthier place to live by providing access to physical activity and nutritious food through a three-year, $20,000 grant.

According to Suzanne Kelley, healthy communities coordinator of the Vermont Health Department’s Health Promotion Disease Prevention Division, obesity, overweight, a lack of physical activity, and poor nutrition are significant problems in Vermont and nationally.

“[Obesity leads] to numerous, expensive chronic conditions and is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States after tobacco use,” she says.

According to “Vermont communities are not immune to the obesity epidemic,” the February 2013 factsheet published by the Vermont Department of Health, “60 percent of adult Vermonters are above a healthy weight."

This figure comes from the Vermont Department of Health’s Vermont Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System 2012 Data Summary, and all data was collected by “a telephone survey conducted annually among adults 18 and older,” according to the summary’s introduction.

“The surveyors get self-reported heights and weights from survey respondents and I do believe [their] BMI [Body Mass Index] is calculated from that,” Kelley says.

Controversy exists surrounding using BMI as the sole indicator of a healthy weight.

Even the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) defines BMI “as a screening tool to identify possible weight problems for adults” and states very clearly: “BMI is not a diagnostic tool. For example, a person may have a high BMI. However, to determine if excess weight is a health risk, a healthcare provider would need to perform further assessments.”

For example, a person reporting a height/weight ratio signifying obesity, but who has a great deal of muscle mass, would still be considered obese according to quantitative research methodology relying solely on BMI.

Kelley countered that with: “The CDC recommendations clearly say: ‘BMI is a fairly reliable indicator of body fatness for most people... Calculating BMI is one of the best methods for population assessment of overweight and obesity.’”

Although questions surround the methodology delivering the statistic stating 60 percent of adult Vermonters are overweight, the factsheet’s assertion that “Vermont spends an estimated $291 million every year on medical costs related to obesity” strongly suggests a public health problem.

CDC data and studies cited at “Guide to Community Preventive Services” (bit.ly/1AW1yvx) say community strategies making it easier to eat healthy and be physically active result in people actually being more active and eating healthier.

“And that’s why the state has invested these funds in our communities,” Kelley says.

In response to data collected from community studies and surveys, the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition (BAPC) applied for the grant to change systems and the environment “so making the healthy choice is the easy, and in some cases, maybe the only, choice,” Kelley explains.

She adds that BAPC was awarded the $20,000 from a statewide pool of $328,897. Awards ranged from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the number of focus areas each grant addresses: access to healthful food, mixed-use development, bicycle/pedestrian road improvements, and parks, recreation, and open space.

“The synergy of this work — touching all the areas in which we live, work, and play — will, over time, make a difference,” Kelley says.

The problem

According to the Vermont Department of Health, those who live in highly walkable communities where housing, shops, schools, and offices are located near each other are more than twice as likely to get 30 minutes or more of daily exercise as those living in auto-oriented areas.

“People who live within walking distance of a park are more likely to meet the minimum weekly exercise recommendation of 30 minutes three times a week,” the department adds.

For many Vermonters living in rural communities without easily walking access to village centers, cars are the go-to for getting around. And that precludes residents from getting exercise by walking or biking to work, school, or errands.

Then there’s the condition of streets and sidewalks once residents get there: if this infrastructure is unfriendly or dangerous for pedestrians’ or bicyclists’ use, residents won’t use them, the department acknowledges.

A possible solution

By awarding this grant money to local outreach and advocacy organizations, the Department of Health says it’s aiming to work directly with communities to promote change on a local level.

“Change is happening: We have health language being incorporated into town plans, park and recreation path improvements being made,” Kelley says.

According to Kathleen White, a registered nurse with the Vermont Department of Health, the department’s thought is that communities can make things happen.

“Selectboards and departments of public works, for example, can push for policies that help people increase their physical activity. The Prevention grant makes communities better, safer places for bikes, play, and walking. It enables people to make better, healthier choices,” she says.

Every community can do something different, she adds: The “buzz” is making the healthier choice the easier choice.

While the nutrition portion of the grant aims to improve public health by direct action — connecting more southeastern Windham County residents to wholesome food and educating them on how to prepare it — the physical-activity part of the grant focuses on influencing public policy to help improve the safety of Brattleboro’s pedestrians and bicyclists.

Alice Charkes, local liaison for Local Motion, the Burlington-based advocacy organization for bicyclists and pedestrians, says her group will collaborate with Safe Streets on the physical activity side of the grant.

Safe Streets, a committee formed by former Brattleboro town manager Barb Sondag and co-chaired by White in response to a spike in pedestrian deaths in 2012, aims to improve safety by educating motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Although Sondag has since left the area, Safe Streets continues.

Charkes says the goal of the grant is to give the town the best information possible to improve roads, with the highest priority being to improve the streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“We’re going to look at data relevant to a small town like Brattleboro. We’re partnering with the town police and the traffic safety committee. We’re offering education, advocacy, and guidance,” she says.

Charkes explains the three tasks undertaken by Local Motion and Safe Streets: Conduct inventory, review data, and develop a plan.

“By the end of December, we’ll have taken inventory of recent relevant events and efforts, and have identified all possible good and bad aspects that affect bicyclist and pedestrian safety,” she tells The Commons.

Some of the collaborative’s recent relevant events and efforts have been handing out reflective arm bands to bikers and walkers to make them more visible to drivers and each other, and “writing very large chalk messages on sidewalks reminding pedestrians to safely cross streets,” Charkes says.

The “bad aspects” the group is compiling include statistics on “hot spots” in town — problem areas where crashes have occurred.

Charkes notes collisions involving cars, bikes, and people, using data gathered by Brattleboro’s Department of Public Works and other sources.

For the second task, the group will review research on best practices on a national level, Charkes explains. That push will seek information on significant barriers to biking and walking and “how to remove them.”

The final task, she says, is to prioritize streets and intersections in town according to how dangerous they are to users, and suggest ways the town improve them through better street planning.

The Department of Health also wants to address municipal policies and environmental changes to make communities’ sounder for bicyclists and pedestrians statewide.

She notes people in town are already biking and walking because they either want to or have to, “and we need to make it safer for them to do so. If we improve conditions, more people will do it."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #286 (Wednesday, December 24, 2014). This story appeared on page A5.

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