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Group strives for healthier Southwest

Helping residents live longer by reducing risk factors for chronic disease

Photo by Deb Gau Jocelyn Bitker, an emergency medical technician with North Memorial Ambulance in Marshall, prepares to make popcorn at the ambulance base on Friday afternoon. North Memorial Ambulance has added a healthy snack station, including honor-system snacks, as well as a slow cooker, blender and air fryer to help employees make healthy food choices on their shifts. The popcorn is part of healthy choices the team can make because of a grant from Minnesota State Health Improvement Partnership.

MARSHALL — Bike paths, walking trails, worksite wellness — a Marshall area group has been working hard all year for A Healthier Southwest.

A Healthier Southwest, a group funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), met Wednesday to review the past year’s achievements. Membership is comprised of community members, partnering organizations, and Southwest Health and Human Services employees.

The group meets throughout the year and its goal is to help residents in a six-county area live longer, healthier lives by reducing risk factors for chronic disease. The settings include worksites/healthcare, schools and communities.

These settings focus on increasing physical activity and healthy eating while reducing tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure.

“This year is not just about the accomplishments, but the partnership,” said Ann Orren, community public health supervisor for SWHHS, who chaired the meeting. Orren said collaborating gives the members the chance to continue “feeding off of each other and building on successes.”

Orren said health educators work with companies on worksite wellness, which is “healthy eating, tobacco cessation and breastfeeding support.”

For example, CarrisHealth (formerly Redwood Falls Hospital) in Redwood Falls now has a lactation room where breastfeeding mothers can pump milk for their infants. The room includes a comfortable chair and mini fridge, the result of a SHIP grant. Farmward and AgQuest now have sit/stand work stations in addition to a lactation station. “Farmward and AgQuest have 10 different offices in multiple counties,” she said. “Jen (Nelson, health educator/SHIP coordinator) does walkthroughs with different businesses. Looking to find a space to put a lactation room. Even a small closet is better than a bathroom or not having any place at all.”

North Memorial Ambulance in Marshall and Redwood Falls now has smart snack stations, courtesy of SHIP. In addition, the ambulance staff has access to air fryers, blenders, and crock pots. The smart snack stations have “items containing whole grain, an actual fruit, dried fruit, granola bars, dried fruit, popcorn,” said Shannon Gossen, a SHHS health educator.

Another focus for AHS is on Tobacco Free Living.

“We’ve helped out with compliance checks, we’ve done some health fairs,” said Orren. “We’ve done presentations on vaping in almost every school district in our six counties. Not just presentations to parents, but to teachers and staff.”

The SHIP coordinators are looking forward to the new law change raising the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.

“Carol (Biren, division director – Public Health/CHS administrator) did send out a letter to all the retailers saying it is now illegal to sell to anybody under the age of 21,” Orren said. “We’ll continue to send out information to them.”

The change has brought positive results for other states.

“States that have passed it have seen a 15 percent reduction in use,” Orren said.

Crystal Watts, an AHS member and an Americorps volunteer at Southwest Minnesota State University Office of Civic Engagement, recommended the Netflix documentary series, “Broken.”

One of the episodes called “Big Vape” focuses on e-cigarettes, she said.

Physical activity is another area the AHS group works on. Janet Bush, from SHHS, reported on a city that took steps to help its citizens become more active.

“In 2016, the city of Minneota decided to have an active living initiative,” said Bush. “And what that means is they wanted to make their city more livable and walkable. They have over 2 miles in trails. They decided to contact the local shop class to build a kiosk and bench. In the kiosk it highlights the trail map and community information. The kiosk is by the pool and baseball and softball fields.”

Bush said on the trail there is an eco counter, which counts how many people use the facilities.

“It’s a data tracker,” she said. “It counts people and analyzes data.”

The eco counter was provided by the Southwest Regional Development Commission.

“It costs us nothing,” she said, “just the staff time.”

Walking and biking are other physical activities the group is promoting.

“The city of Marshall has been a great partner for us in terms of their Safe Routes to School and bike share program,” said Shannon Gossen, a SHHS health educator. “The Marshall Community Services and city of Marshall rolled out their bike share program this past summer. They had 12 bikes at three sites around the community and it was a huge hit for people. They had them at hotels, the bike shop, and then the city (hall). We assisted with signage and they’re really excited to do that again this coming spring and summer and hoping to continue with data evaluation to determine usage.”

In addition a bike fix-it station is something that was asked for by Safe Routes to School partners.

“We worked with (Marshall Community Services) to have one installed along the Camden trail and also at the (Marshall Area) YMCA,” she said.

Designs have been painted on the sidewalks in Marshall parks to get kids moving.

“SHIP used some dollars to purchase stencils,” Gossen said, “and paint as well for a daisy hopscotch and snake tiptoe. Kids have really loved them.”

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