The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children ages 6-11 has climbed steadily over the last three decades. Data consistently show that rural children experience higher levels of obesity and 26 percent greater odds of becoming obese compared to their non-rural counterparts.
A definitive understanding of the reasons living in rural areas promotes obesity remains unclear, though most studies report lower access to healthy food and sufficient physical activity opportunities as the most likely culprit independent of social and demographic factors.
GROW Healthy Kids and Communities, a multi-state initiative led by the OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences Extension, focused on finding answers and developing strategies to reduce these risks for rural children. Extension engaged rural communities to identify local environmental factors that support or hinder physical activity and healthy eating, and help residents use new knowledge to make appropriate changes. The ultimate goal was to help rural kids maintain a healthy weight by turning healthy choices – playgrounds over PlayStations and broccoli over burgers – into easy choices.
From 2011 through 2016, GROW was implemented in Clackamas, Columbia, and Klamath counties in Oregon and in five additional western states. In Oregon, county Extension offices supported GROW activities in partnership with the towns and elementary schools of Estacada, Molalla, Clatskanie, Rainier, Bonanza and Chiloquin.
Extension teams worked closely with rural residents, schools, and community partners to measure the height, weight and school-day physical activity of about 1,900 elementary students two times a school year over the three-year study period. About 200 children and their families completed surveys about their eating and activity habits in the home and wore devices to record their physical activity levels over a week. The assessments of school physical activity and nutrition environments provided school partners with information to make changes that supported students healthy eating and physical activity patterns at school. Communities responded by planting school gardens, adding playground equipment, building hiking trails, setting up produce stands and establishing farmers markets. The information collected through GROW continues to inspire changes.