Newton Focuses on Overall Health of Its Residents—and Local Economy

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Getting kids to eat right and get active is integral part of plan

Newton kids having fun with fruit


In many ways, Newton County faces a challenge at every turn in its battle against childhood obesity. The county has few recreational facilities, easy access to fast food, the poverty rate is high, and studies show that most children lead a sedentary lifestyle. And while Newton is faring better than the state, which has the nation’s second highest childhood obesity rate, that provides little solace to the Newton County Community Partnership (NCCP).

“Our goal is to create a community where nutrition, health, and fitness are actively promoted and encouraged throughout Newton County,” said Laura Bertram, executive director of the NCCP. “Healthy body weight is a benchmark that we would like to improve.”

But first it was the county’s economic health that needed improving. In 2002, Newton was the seventh fastest growing county in the United States with homes sales driving a population increase by nearly 62 percent. “Unfortunately, much of that was due to predatory lending, and in 2010 we were identified as the 19th most distressed county in the nation,” Bertram explained.

Tamela Mills, social media and Web administrator for the NCCP, recalled how the economy prevented the idea of school-based health centers from gaining traction several years ago. “It was a great program, but a measure too expensive for small communities, especially one like ours that was still reeling from being so deeply affected by the economic downturn,” she said. “Our local governments, healthcare providers, schools, and local businesses at that time were not in a position to create school-based health clinics, even though several officials expressed interest.” Despite the inability to launch the program, Mills said she saw a community “very concerned about its children and overall health risks, including obesity.”

The county and the school system, according to Bertram, were taken to their knees economically. “But now the county is getting back on its feet and the goal is to help its residents do the same,” she said. “We’re just starting to stabilize again as a community.”

The plan got a boost from the General Mills Foundation, which provides grants to community groups like NCCP, the YMCA, and the Washington Street Community Center in Covington that promote nutrition education and fitness programs in schools.

Bertram, who has been with the county Collaborative since 2002 and has served as the executive director for the past five years, knows what it takes for the initiative to succeed. A former research analyst for infant and toddler nutrition at the University of Georgia, Bertram focuses on awareness, education, and collaborative partnerships as part of Newton County’s health improvement plan.

The goal in Newton is for more 5- to 12-year-olds with a body mass index inside the healthy fitness zone. That means starting where they spend most of their days—in school.

Some kids in Newton County chowing down on healthy snacks

Newton County has 13 elementary schools
with a population of 8,876 students.
A 2012 Fitnessgram test
of students
in all grades countywide revealed
that 45 percent are considered
overweight or obese.

 The first step is to encourage students to make healthy food choices, and what better way than through some “healthy” competition? “We’re applying for a small grant to host a system-wide competition of the number of fresh fruits and vegetables eaten during lunch,” Bertram said. “Teachers will receive incentives to encourage healthy eating habits and the students will win prizes for their efforts.”

Proper nutrition, however, is just one part of the equation. With no bowling alley, skating rink, skateboarding park, or community pool in the county, children come home from school and sit in front of a screen. In fact, according to the Georgia Dept. of Public Health, more than 44 percent of the state’s middle school students, and 39 percent of high school students, watch television for more than three hours every school day.

Tonya Bechtler is hoping to change that by getting more students away from the TV and onto the Yellow River Water Trail. “Our goal is to coordinate activities to engage the community to get active and get on the river,” said Bechtler, who was elected the Trail’s first director in December. “We want to get people out on kayaks and paddleboards to enjoy the river. It’s a form of recreation and it’s great for your health.”

Kids dig in a Newton vegetable garden

The NCCP also is using social media to spread the word about the Yellow River and raise awareness about nutrition and fitness programs in the county. Residents can go to the NCCP website for information on the Healthy Weight Initiative, on Facebook to stay connected with the county Collaborative’s activities, and to to learn about the Newton-Gwinnett-Rockdale public health initiative to promote community conversation about food and fitness choices. 

“We cover more than just fitness and nutrition,” Mills said of the NCCP Facebook page, which has more than 880 followers. “We highlight local groups’ events, success stories, and opportunities to volunteer.” Mills says some posts reach an average of 4,900 people. “Social media has given us a way to reach people who share our interest in supporting families and children in our community, and who want to do more for their own families.”

Bertram says being a part of the Georgia Family Connection Childhood Obesity Initiative with Baldwin, Talbot, and Washington counties is invaluable. “One of the wonderful things about being a part of this cohort group is that we’ve learned a lot from them,” she said, using Live Healthy Baldwin as an example. “What they have done to get an entire community to embrace and lift the culture of one neighborhood is outstanding. We hope to one day emulate the relationship-building Baldwin has done so beautifully.”

Until then, the NCCP will continue to raise awareness, inform, and partner with the community to offer its residents more than what they have in the past. “A lot of what we do is promoting new norms,” Bertram said. “It’s about changing the minds of young people by sheer persistence.”

Diana St. Lifer is a professional writer with more than 25 years’ experience. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, a post-B.A. certificate in child advocacy, and is a certified professional life coach who specializes in teen and adolescent issues.

Local leaders in Newton County are combating obesity by luring more students away from the TV and onto the Yellow River Water Trail. The goal is to engage the community to get active by getting people out on kayaks and paddleboards to enjoy the river. It’s a fun, healthy form of recreation.
Read “Row, Row, Row Your Boat to a Healthy Lifestyle.”

Low birthweight, childhood obesity, and a literacy gap are serious threats to the well-being of Georgia’s families and children. Recognizing the impact these pressing issues have on the state’s health, safety, and ability to prosper, Georgia Family Connection Partnership has launched three initiatives dedicated to developing and implementing strategies that address these key indicators.
“Eleven Family Connection Collaboratives Team Up to Tackle Key Indicators of Child and Family Well-Being.”