Eating Smart and Moving More in Columbus County, North Carolina

March 21, 2011

A simple message has taken center stage in Columbus County, North Carolina: “Eat smart. Move more.” It’s shared in schools, churches and county offices. Even a call to the Columbus County Health Department meets with a recording of Health Director Kimberly Smith reminding residents to take a brisk 30-minute walk every day and to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Why? Last year, Columbus County came in last (#100) in the County Health Rankings conducted  by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Rankings look at multiple factors that affect health, including access to care, behaviors like smoking, environmental factors like clean air, and socio-economic factors like poverty. By all accounts, Columbus County was in poor health.

The last-place ranking prompted the health department to initiate a serious public education campaign to improve the health of its community. It started by getting the news out that Columbus was the lowest ranking county in the state and then encouraging residents to help turn the ranking around by focusing on the basics.

“Grab your neighbor and take a walk. We stressed more fruits and vegetables. The simple ideas,” Smith said. “We're a very rural and a very poor county. The simpler we keep it, the easier it is for people to participate.”

Since the Rankings were released in March 2010, Smith and her colleagues have promoted the “Eat smart. Move more.” message in presentations to schools, churches, hospital groups, civic clubs and at various county offices, including social services and the sheriff’s department.

“We're seeing more activity now,” Smith said. “More groups are inviting us to give presentations. We're seeing more people out walking, even in cold weather. People are making an effort.”

The county also implemented a ban on smoking in county buildings and recently launched a local version of The Biggest Loser, in response to the rankings. About 20 county employees joined the 8-week weight-loss competition, which has garnered so much interest that Smith expects to run a second competition in the coming months. Even County Commissioners show their support by weighing-in at each meeting.

Meanwhile, another local partner is arranging a mobile van to carry fruits and vegetables to remote parts of the county so that rural residents can easily access fresh produce.

It’s all part of the county’s plan to turn its ranking around by getting more people engaged in physical activity and eating healthier in 2011.