A healthy Coos County starts with parents
A New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services report on obesity, focusing on third-grade students, is packed with troubling news for Coos County. It shows the northernmost county has a growing problem tied to poor diet and little exercise. Forty-one percent of all third-graders in Coos County are classified as overweight or significantly overweight - the highest percentage in the state. If that isn't enough, the region also has the fewest children whose weight is appropriate to their size.There is a sad irony to this story. The North Country has vast, safe and free outdoor recreation opportunities. But a wholesome environment is not enough, as national studies indicate there is a common link between poverty and poor health habits. As habits turn to lifestyles, they lead to chronic health conditions that will eventually overburden our health-care system.The problem is not new. Last year's County Ranking Report, produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, warned us that Coos County's population ranked the lowest in the state for health outcomes as measured by length of life and quality of life.The North Country Health Consortium has a goal to improve our region's overall health, but to do this we will need to tackle a number of risk factors that lead to poor health and a shortened life span. We can't do it alone. It will take communities and individuals becoming involved in supporting healthy lifestyles and providing individuals, families and our children with opportunities to access recreation resources and craft healthy policies in our schools and communities.Fortunately, there is a clear path and good guidance to better health:• Encourage and support mothers to breastfeed their babies. Coos County has among the state's lowest rate of breastfeeding while breast milk provides the best possible nutrition for developing babies and has lifelong benefits.• Be a good role model. Among adults, Coos County has the state's highest rate of obesity, and the lowest rate of physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption. If we are truly serious about living longer and healthier lives, then we ourselves must change and model better living for our children.• Municipalities can support healthy eating and active living through policies that increase opportunities for physical activity and access to healthy foods. Encouraging farmers' markets, improving infrastructure to support walking and bicycling, creating incentives for food retailers, restaurants and other venues to provide healthier foods from local farms and a local community coalition to focus on healthy eating and active living activities are all ways to improve the health of the community.• Schools can create nutrition standards for foods and beverages and set standards for daily physical activity. They can connect local farms and schools to enable schools to serve healthy, locally grown foods in their cafeterias and integrate farms, food, and nutrition into their curriculum.Families and communities can begin now to work together to replace bad habits with good ones - with healthier diets, homemade meals, more exercise and less television and soda. Our children deserve nothing less than the chance to live long, healthy and productive lives, but the hard work starts with us.Martha McLeod of Franconia is executive director of the North Country Health Consortium.