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Stitching Together Healthy Communities in Northwest Mississippi

charrette1The Coldwater River is a common thread that weaves through DeSoto, Marshall and Tate Counties in the northwest corner of Mississippi. This river—originating in Marshall County, heading west through DeSoto County and creating part of the border between DeSoto and Tate Counties—runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi River. The Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnership, led by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, saw the river as an asset in the community and a perfect backdrop to active living activities. The Community Foundation is unique, in that it is the only HKHC lead agency that is also a funder. This allows the lead agency to have flexibility in terms of reach, scope and connections, that is not always readily available to other HKHC lead agencies. Their partnership includes community members, leaders of nearby agencies and decision makers in the Northwest Mississippi region.

Highlighting Local Assets
The Coldwater River is just an example of how the HKHC partnership is highlighting what already exists in the tri-county area with potential to create healthy communities. An early goal of the HKHC partnership was to connect people to recreational opportunities along the Coldwater River. But this sense of “raising up what is here” doesn’t stop with just the physical environment, it also includes policy makers, agencies and community members interested in creating healthier communities.

For example, the Northwest Mississippi Land Trust adopted a Greenways program in DeSoto County, the most urban of the three counties. Their mission is “to establish a greenway system that connects public and private open and green spaces with sidewalks throughout DeSoto County, Mississippi . . . and will encompass a variety of multipurpose trails and green space suitable for hiking, skating, jogging, walking, running, equestrian use, canoeing, kayaking and biking.” At the same time, the Chickasaw Trails Association, a community group in DeSoto County is interested in creating historic routes taken by the Chickasaw and Choctaw during the Indian Removal of the 1830s for residents to learn more about the local history while getting physical activity. Planning the Chickasaw Trails is not currently connected to the Greenways plans, but as a result of the HKHC partnership they will be connected like many similar synergies happening throughout DeSoto, Tate and Marshall Counties.

These types of connections do not happen by coincidence. Mississippi has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the country, and many community members and policymakers in northwest Mississippi are taking action to rid themselves of that title. Active living and healthy eating connections are spreading in many different ways throughout the three county area. Peggy Linton, HKHC project director, rattled off many examples of how decision makers are working towards more sustainable changes in order to create healthier communities. “Farmers’ markets are taking off like lightning. Hernando has the seventh best market in the country [according to the American Farmland Trust’s America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market contest under Large Markets]. Even the smaller towns have farmers’ markets, and Tate County just received funding to upgrade their facility.” Out of the eight cities or towns within the HKHC area, six have farmers’ markets, partially, as a result of their work. Peggy says there is a friendly competition among the cities and towns. “They see what neighboring towns can do with very little money and they might try to replicate it within their own community.”

Moving Forward
Decision makers within the tri-county area aren’t going into this work blindly either. In December 2010, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi and the Bouchillon Institute for Community Planning hosted “Your Town—Your Health: Planning and Building Healthy Communities.” The Bouchillon Institute works to improve community planning in the region and state and was a helpful partner to bring policy makers to this community development conference. Elected officials, planning commissioners and Board of Adjustment members were invited to join other community development advocates and practitioners for a deeper dive on strategies to create healthier communities. Over 100 people showed up to this one day event which included a planning charrette that resulted in identifying needs and developing strategic goals. Tate and Marshall Counties, being mostly rural, don’t have official planning departments, so it was an opportunity for community members from those counties, along with policy makers, to create a strategic plan.

The HKHC partnership followed up from the December conference by offering assistance to planners and the decision makers who attended the event. Because of its success, a follow up summit is scheduled for December 2011 which will focus on developing policies for healthy eating and active living. It will be free to elected officials and developers from any of the Healthy Kids Healthy Communities tri-counties, although it is not limited to just DeSoto, Tate and Marshall Counties. In the meantime, these three counties are continuing to move forward with adopting joint use agreements, creating additional biking and pedestrian paths and expanding access to healthy fruits and vegetables to local residents. The HKHC partnership is working with many of the communities to help them create policies and an environment for a healthier community. Much like the river that connects the counties, the need for healthy communities runs through the region and the HKHC partnership is lifting what exist. As Peggy said, “If a seed is being planted in a community, we’re just trying to bring it to full harvest.”


September, 2011