MOUNT GILEAD – At a time when obesity has reached epidemic proportions in many American cities and towns, leaders of the Montgomery County town of Mount Gilead (population 1,341) have launched an effort to try and reverse the trend in their community.
The recently adopted Town of Mount Gilead Healthy Foods Policy provides “opportunities for healthy foods and beverages” at all town meetings, potluck and catered events, and community health fairs as well as for town-operated children’s programs.
“We try our best to have healthy choices,” says Town Manager Katrina Tatum. “We’re trying all these things in an effort to change eating habits.”
The policy, which became effective Feb. 8, 2011, is intended to reach town employees and community residents alike and notes that “heart disease, cancer and stroke – the top three causes of death in North Carolina – are largely affected by what we eat and how active we are.”
According to Tatum, the new policy grew out of a particular effort to see that healthy foods, snacks and beverages would be offered during the town’s summer park program for children. The Healthy Snacks Nutritional Standards Policy for the Mount Gilead Summer Park Program sets caloric and fat content according to guidelines from the Eat Smart North Carolina program.
Calories for snack food items can’t exceed 250, and total calories from fat can’t exceed 35 percent, except for foods that are mainly nuts, eggs, cheese, non-fried foods, legumes or seeds. Plain water is offered as a healthy option, and milk or flavored milk must be 1 percent or fat-free.
An attachment to the policy includes examples of healthy snacks as recommended by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which says that most of the snacks served to children should be fruits and vegetables since most kids don’t get the recommended servings of five to 13 a day.
Tatum hopes local children will eventually begin to opt for the same healthy foods at home. “We want children to instinctively reach for the healthier products,” she says. “If we keep pushing it, children are going to mimic what they see. Unfortunately, I think our biggest problem is going to be the parents.”
Tatum and the Town Board have been encouraged in their efforts by FirstHealth Community Health Services through its participation in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities” (HKHC) program. The four-year, $33 million initiative is aimed at community-based solutions to childhood obesity in 41 cities, counties and regions.
In Montgomery and Moore counties, Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities task forces work to create policy and environmental changes advancing healthy living among children and families in five communities. While Mount Gilead has chosen to focus on healthy food options for town-sponsored activities, some of the other communities are targeting increased physical activity opportunities for children. Aberdeen in Moore County is working on a pedestrian plan that includes creating safe routes to schools and parks, while the Moore County town of Robbins is working on safe places and opportunities for children to play soccer.
“Mount Gilead is setting the example for making healthy eating part of the town’s culture,” says Cindy Laton, a FirstHealth health educator.
Candor in Montgomery County and Southern Pines in Moore County are also part of the program. All five communities were chosen because the high incidence of free and reduced-price lunches in their schools.
Laton has helped enhance the healthy eating focus in Mount Gilead by conducting a Happy Kitchen cooking and nutrition education class for local adults. A program funded through the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Happy Kitchen provides information on how to prepare meals that are tasty yet healthy and inexpensive.
“A lot of us have learned healthier choices,” Tatum says. “As we learn these things, we’re passing them on to others by offering programs and creating policies that support healthy lifestyles.”
For more information on the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities program or about attending or hosting a Happy Kitchen class, call (877) 342-2255.