Fostering Wellness Among Youth in Madison County, Tennessee

March 25, 2011

When the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce first decided to get involved with improving health and wellness in Madison County, Tennessee, officials weren’t sure where to begin or how to determine which issues to tackle. But when chamber president Kyle Spurgeon saw the 2010 County Health Rankings, he saw that the area’s health conditions could be directly tied in to its economic prowess.

“What I realized was that because of these rankings, you can now compare apples to apples,” Spurgeon said. “When a company is evaluating Jackson as a prospective location, they look at key location criteria — and wellness outcomes are part of that location criteria search. All other things being equal, a healthier community stands a better shot at getting a project than one that’s unhealthy.”

To spark action in the community, chamber officials held a planning session early last year to discuss local areas for improvement, including wellness. There, Spurgeon shared the County Health Rankings with participants.

“I said, ‘These rankings exist now, and this is where Jackson is.’ I told everyone in that planning session, ‘We can be compared now,’ “ he said. “That had an impact on what people’s thought processes were in that planning session. This was data that they hadn’t had before.”

From both an economic development and a wellness standpoint, chamber members decided the most effective way to improve health in Madison County was to target youth. Changing behaviors among children and teenagers, Spurgeon said, would help encourage lifelong wellness, which is ultimately beneficial to the area and its business prospects.

“If you’re driving down the street and a 14-year-old kid crosses, and because of a lifestyle choice that child is overweight and continues that trend throughout his life, he may well cost us some jobs in Jackson,” Spurgeon said. “We’ve got to help our kids understand how to live a healthy lifestyle.”

After the planning session, the chamber began spotlighting health improvement efforts that were already taking place in Madison County, focusing on youth health behaviors. According to Spurgeon, multiple programs — such as initiatives to remove vending machines from local schools and promote exercise to kids — were already tackling the problem, but hadn’t received much media attention until the County Health Rankings were released.

“Our schools were recognized nationally by the USDA for promoting a healthy school environment, and as a community, we didn’t realize all of this was going on,” he said. “So we’re shining the light on things that are already occurring. It was just connecting the dots.”

In the future, Spurgeon said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Chamber of Commerce tackled health improvement projects by employing a health and wellness professional of its own. But for now, he said, business leaders in the community will continue to incorporate the County Health Rankings in existing efforts.

“They’ve enabled us to articulate the importance of those rankings and how in the future, and now, they will impact our ability to create new jobs in the community,” Spurgeon said.