Through a series of programs aimed at healthier living, the Mississippi State University Extension Service wants to help Mississippi shed its deep-fried reputation as “first in the worst.”
“Mississippi’s rates of obesity, chronic diseases and cancers are among the worst in the nation,” said David Buys, Extension health specialist and researcher. “That is why we’re placing an increased emphasis on outreach programs that address health.”
From its founding in 1914, Extension has worked to educate families in a variety of areas including home economics. Though the discipline now has a new name—family and consumer sciences—and is delivered in a more personal manner, its topics of nutrition, food safety, housing, gardening and financial management address pressing needs for Mississippi’s rural residents.
“We are at our Extension offices, in community and senior centers, churches, schools and libraries—anywhere clients would like to host us,” Buys explained. “Increasingly, we’re working to get our programs online and empower people to make changes through educational opportunities in a variety of formats.”
He explained that this community-based approach is necessary to address such a broad and complex challenge as health.
“It’s not as simple as individuals making better choices,” he observed. “We’ve got work to do at many levels: in our families; in our communities and social circles; in our counties, towns and cities; and at the state and national levels. We need to do more to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
Extension is uniquely positioned to partner with organizations of all kinds to deliver health-related programs. With a county-level network across the state and agents trained to deliver science-based information, the potential for impact is significant.
“We are working across the spectrum to address health from a variety of needs,” Buys said.
A HEALTHIER LIFE
With so much conflicting health information available, it can be challenging to know where to start.
Buys recommends picking one change and sticking with it. After all, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, so just take it one step at a time.
Some simple changes that could be a big step toward a healthy lifestyle include:
Start the day with a glass of water before other beverages.
Swap dessert for a piece of fruit.
Bake, broil or grill meat and vegetables.
Walk around while talking on the phone.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Choose whole grain breads and pastas.
Exercise with a friend or family member.
Snack on healthier foods, such as hummus and carrot sticks.
Get plenty of sleep.
For personal health, Extension offers Walk-a-Weigh, a program designed to improve nutrition and daily physical activity, as well as a year-long diabetes prevention program. It is also launching a new program called Dining with Diabetes and has a short weekly video news program called “The Food Factor” to show viewers how healthy choices can be fun.
Buys said Extension is part of a national effort to increase awareness about home environments. The Healthy Homes Initiative covers a wide range of topics that impact family health, including asthma and allergies.
“From this foundation, our work has expanded to include a special series focused on child care environments,” he explained. “We’ve partnered with the Mississippi Department of Health’s Office of Child Care Licensure to offer the Creating Healthy Indoor Childcare Environments program and address the specific needs of this audience.”On the community level, Extension is engaging young people to become health ambassadors and possibly medical professionals.
The Junior Master Wellness Volunteers program is a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and its Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities. Students in disciplines such as allied health, family and consumer science, and 4-H clubs receive training so they can deliver health messages to the community.
The Rural Medical Scholars program provides an on-campus experience to allow aspiring doctors, while still in high school, to learn the rigors of college courses and the variety of medical careers available.
Regina Boykins, Extension agent in Humphreys County, makes a gentle, all-purpose cleaner with Sarah Reed Taylor, Melissa Warren and Martha Shields. Sha Boyd, an early childhood teacher at Barbara Henson’s Nursery and Pre-K in Meridian, applies lessons learned in the Creating Healthy Indoor Childcare Environments training.
“Our young people are capable of building a brighter future for our state,” Buys said. “Extension is determined to give them the experiences and training they need to succeed.”
Extension’s success depends on trained agents aligning their local clients’ needs with the science-based programs available.
Regina Boykins, an Extension agent in Humphreys County for 17 years, knows well the obstacles her clients face.
“From a young age, I felt the need to help people in my community make better decisions about their lives,” Boykins said. “As I got older, my interest in health and wellness became more personal as I faced my own challenges with weight and stress management skills.”
Boykins said she works to maintain the integrity of every program’s goals and objectives while delivering the information in a way clients can understand.
“I want them to be motivated to make the changes needed to live healthier lives,” she said.
Participants want information that is sound and practical but they also enjoy the social aspects of the programs, she said. For 10 years, Boykins has written a monthly “Health Achiever” column for the local newspaper, The Belzoni Banner, to highlight the clients’ progress and shine a spotlight on making positive choices.
“I see myself as a resource and someone in the process of learning along the way,” she observed.
Gary Jackson, Mississippi State University Extension director, said he sees tremendous opportunity for more cross-sector collaboration and is eager to reach people in new and innovative ways.
“We want to strengthen our health and nutrition programming since it is primarily driven by the food we consume,” Jackson explained. “Since Extension has dramatically affected the increase of America’s food production over the past 100 years, we want to do the same for America’s health in the next 100.”