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MSU Extension Agents "AIM" to Reduce Rural Obesity

by Erica Hensley, For the MSU Extension Service

Volunteers from Hearty Helping Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen load food boxes for a mobile pantry pick-up point in March. When this Greenville-based nonprofit group saw its demand quadruple during the pandemic, AIM for CHangE installed new cold storage and stoves to help it meet new needs. (Photo by Erica Hensley/For MSU Extension)

MAYERSVILLE, Miss. -- Alexis Hamilton never thought he would be hauling a green plastic dinosaur sheathed in protective plastic through an empty field in the Mississippi Delta. But when he looks back on his career, it’s not that big of a leap.

Hamilton is a long-time pastor and former science teacher, so coalition-building with a health-minded focus is in his bones. Though he still serves as a pastor on Sundays, mostly virtually, he is now one of two Mississippi State University Extension agents for the AIM for CHangE (Advancing, Inspiring, Motivating for Community Health through Extension) program, which focuses on reducing obesity in the Delta.

Born and raised in Indianola, where his mother still lives, he knows the Delta well. After about a decade living in Sharkey County, he jumped at the opportunity two years ago to launch community-based programming across the Delta that increases opportunities for physical activity and promotes access to healthier foods.

One of those projects, which included the plastic dinosaur, just brought an expanded park and playground to Mayersville, a 600-person town in Issaquena County where only 18% of folks had access to exercise opportunities before the new facilities were added. This deficiency put the county at the bottom of the state for health factors, according to County Health Rankings. Hamilton said he hopes this simple but powerful expansion of exercise access can change that ranking.

The new playground is at the intersection of apartments, a park and a new walking trail, which are a stone’s throw from the river. The soft ground and central location created a perfect space to get families out. While kids play, parents can walk the trail, Hamilton noted.

“These small communities just don’t have the resources to build something like this without outside help,” he said.

But the need and want are there, and Extension has helped transform an empty space into a safe and convenient exercise haven for Mayersville families.

Hamilton said he is thankful to give back to a place that he feels is particularly under-resourced and sees the brunt of the state’s worst health outcomes.

“I’m glad to have solutions and resources,” he said.

And those solutions are meant to be sustainable, not just temporary interventions.

Hamilton covers four counties snaking up the river, from the southern Delta to Washington and his home county, Sunflower. His Extension partner covers four more counties. Together, they’re working on projects across the Delta to give folks tools to achieve healthier lifestyle changes, like access to exercise opportunities and resources for community gardens.

Communities in the Delta are used to “outside money” being plopped down on various projects, but Hamilton said those investments often come and go quickly, without community buy-in or long-term strategy. Extension’s work is different and more methodical. He meets with communities across his four counties to understand their hopes and fears, needs and financial challenges.

As with all other public health initiatives, AIM for CHangE suffered a setback because of COVID-19. But the pandemic has also offered room to grow and expand Extension’s work.

One example is Pandora Redmond’s work in Greenville. Having run Hearty Helping Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen since 2009, Redmond had the heart and know-how to grow her community food service when demand quadrupled from 200 families weekly before the pandemic to 800 during the early COVID-19 lockdown. But she needed to scale her cold-chain and nonperishable storage to meet new demands and go mobile to get further into communities in need.

That’s where AIM for CHangE came in.

“We just got her the extra help and technical assistance that she needed, really just giving her the advantage that she needed,” Hamilton said.

AIM for CHangE provided her a walk-in fridge to store cold donations, like milk, that were coming in more frequently and a commercial stove, so her team could prepare more hot meals daily to meet growing needs. Hamilton also helped Redmond go digital, connecting her with virtual donation resources to grow her nonprofit organization.

Hamilton also helps manage mobile pick-up sites. In just a few hours in late March, these sites enabled Redmond to serve boxed meals for 192 families in Metcalfe just outside of Greenville. That service benefited a quarter of the town’s population.

In the last two years, the program has also helped build a fitness center in Hollandale behind the city hall, expanded a bee apiary in Greenville, supported community gardens across the Delta, and assisted mobile food pantries at colleges, among other projects.

“The small towns are often overlooked.” Hamilton said. “It’s not just people talking about it, but you can physically see the change taking place and that’s the exciting part -- to be able to actually see it in small communities that don’t have the resources to do this on their own.”

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