The Alice F. Keene Park – and a diverse, dedicated community partnership that translated this vision to reality in 2008 – is just one of many reasons why Pitt County has been awarded three Fit Community designation awards since 2006. The centrally-located park offers residents of this rural county in eastern North Carolina a range of opportunities for physical activity, including athletic fields, a 1.2-mile paved walking trail, community garden and playground. Intentionally situated near other key destinations, the park further establishes the area as a hub of activity, with the farmers’ market, two schools, senior center, animal shelter, recycling center, Pitt Community College Greenhouse, and Village of Yesteryear all in close proximity. A strong sense of pride and ownership surround the park because citizens were involved in its vision, planning, advocacy, funding, and building. Moreover, collaboration with the city of Greenville made it possible to guarantee future connectivity through the city’s greenway master plan. Alice Keene, Pitt County’s community schools and recreation director for over three decades and the park’s namesake, stated, “The connectivity to the park will have to be part of any plan for development, so that’s the beauty. If it’s a part of the policy, it happens.”
Accessibility of safe spaces for physical activity has long been a priority in Pitt County, a goal that has buy-in and collaboration from a diverse range of partners, such as the health department, county and municipal planning and recreation departments, the regional hospital and university communities, schools, businesses, and faith organizations. The county maximizes its reach by locating many recreational facilities in shared spaces, having worked with stakeholders in places such as schools, flood buy-out land, church properties, and malls to create community joint-use agreements. In place for several years is a shared facility policy, implemented and staffed by the Pitt County Community Schools and Recreation Department, which enables all school sites to be open and available to the public after school hours. Such practices and partnerships increase recreational resources across the entire county.
Pitt County partners have created broad support for healthy eating, as well. The county’s largest employer, Pitt County Memorial Hospital, implemented the NC Prevention Partners’ Healthy Hospital Initiative, training food services staff on preparation and portion control, providing point-of-selection nutrition information, and using a pricing structure to incentivize purchase of healthier items. The staff of 7,000 also benefits from an incentive program to encourage their own healthy eating habits. All schools, meanwhile, have implemented state nutrition standards, which has a positive impact on vending, after-school programs, school events, school meals, and a la carte options. Finally, the farmers’ market offers nutrition education, featuring weekly demonstrations to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption among patrons.
In addition to collaboration, leaders cite persistence and incremental change as keys to success. For example, informal encouragement led to an official healthy option policy for all food offered at county-sponsored activities. Since the policy’s passage, more healthy options continue to appear. “We start with small ‘have to’s’ and when we get used to that, we take another step,” said Jo Morgan, Pitt County’s health education director. Efforts to integrate health considerations into local policy decisions also represent a gradual but important shift that has paid dividends. Pitt County received a $1.6 million federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant that helped them establish a new comprehensive plan integrating land use and health. Many successful local and state funded initiatives led to that new funding, including those through the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina, Fit Community and others – all contributing to the County’s ability to leverage additional resources.
CPPW funds will also help Pitt County address another important challenge: ensuring that the most vulnerable residents, especially the 25 percent living in poverty, benefit from healthier community environments. The funds will support a corner store initiative to make fresh fruits and vegetables more available in low-income areas that lack grocery stores. The county has also collaborated with municipal planners to address access to greenways and grocery stores in low-income communities and supported smaller municipalities and farmers in efforts to expand availability of new markets and produce stands.
Consistent promotional messaging and affordable programs reinforce Pitt County’s policy and environmental change efforts to create a healthier community for all residents. The Eat Smart, Move More NC campaign, developed by the Physical Activity and Nutrition Branch at the North Carolina Division of Public Health, has been utilized for years through local outlets, including television, radio, newsletters, and banners. Interactive tools allow citizens to manage their own physical activity and healthy eating activities, and several local partners offer a variety of regular programs to help sustain active lifestyles. As a result, the Eat Smart, Move More NC message is widely recognized across the community.
Partners in Pitt County state that the Fit Community designation award has bolstered their continued efforts to make health and healthy lifestyles accessible to more citizens across the county. As County Commission Chair, Beth Ward, said, “This designation is one the most important accomplishments for this community, as it promotes health and well-being for all our children and adults. It also serves as a reminder that while we have been recognized, there is still much work to be done. It really motivates us to keep working toward our vision for a healthy, active community.” If past accomplishments are any indication, we can expect to see much more from Pitt County for years to come.