With South Coast lung cancer rates reported as some of the highest in the state, and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease far too prevalent, a coalition of civic leaders are making their voices heard to change policies that contribute to unhealthy choices.
Nancy LaRue Bonnell, Vice President of Operation at the YMCA Southcoast, envisioned a coalition of civic organizations and leaders that change community policies. With a $40,000 grant from the YMCA of the USA, she began to do just that.
Bonnell invited Southcoast Health Systems to partner with the YMCA Southcoast on the project because its hospitals matched the Y’s urban service areas: Charlton in Fall River, St. Luke’s in New Bedford, and Tobey in Wareham. Donna Querim at Southcoast Health Systems, who performs health screening and outreach in the Fall River area, was selected to co-coach with Bonnell on the coalition.
The two coaches sought community representatives with a background in health from Swansea to Wareham to help brainstorm ideas and implement changes in policies. Getting representatives has been challenging, said Bonnell. But she and Querim built a coalition of 26 volunteers from 22 organizations and businesses over the past two years.
By focusing on tobacco prevention, nutrition and an active lifestyle, the group hopes to make it easier for South Coast residents to make healthy choices that will reduce and prevent chronic diseases.
“Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of death on the South Coast,” said Bonnell. Reducing tobacco use will help change that. According to the CDC, smoking accounts for more than 440,000 deaths per year nationally. And, as noted in a recent Standard Times op-ed article, tobacco is the one consumer product that, when used as directed, causes illness and death, said Lynda Young, M.D., president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
Working with Bristol County and Cape and Islands tobacco control officers, the coalition met with the Fall River, New Bedford, and Wareham boards of health to changes tobacco permit regulations to reduce smoking opportunities.
The result was a ban on the sale of tobacco in pharmacies in those communities. “It’s a mixed message at best when a pharmacy sells nicotine patches and cigarettes at the same time,” said Bonnell. Fall River and New Bedford voted to ban tobacco sales in pharmacies in 2011, and Wareham’s ban went into effect January 1, 2012.
“We’re hoping this will be a model for the State to use,” said Quirem.
Southcoast Health Systems has also stepped up to change its own tobacco policy. As of January 1, 2012, all of its campuses are completely tobacco-free. Quirem said that there haven’t been complaints from clients.
“People seem to be accepting it,” she said. There are education and support groups available to Southcoast clients if they need assistance with smoking cessation.
Making Time for Recess
Since Massachusetts public schools are required to have wellness policies in place, the Coalition is working to ensure that these policies are being enforced. This meant asking some schools to reinstate recess. With the emphasis on MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test scores, many schools eliminated recess in favor of more classroom time.
The Center for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes of physical education per week for adults and one hour a day for children under 12. Unfortunately, many children do not get even this minimum activity level. Having recess provides a safe way to get the active lifestyle needed to prevent many chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Nutrition and Healthy Eating
When it comes to nutrition, the coalition picked representatives from the South Coast who were already involved in healthy nutrition. Among these are Derek Christianson, of Brix Bounty Farm. His work with nutrient density, known as “brix,” has become well known throughout the South Coast. Christianson and his wife operate Brix Bounty, their farm in Dartmouth, that creates high-density produce through organic practices.
Since the Y’s community farm at its Dartmouth branch was already partnered with the Hunger Commission, Salvation Army and local food pantries, many of those organizations are helping with the Coalition’s activities on nutrition.
“The whole community needs to be involved to make it healthy for its citizens,” said Quirem.
For the future, the Coaltion has secured a $500,000 grant from the MA Sate Department of Public Health to continue the work they began. Mass DPH will be leading the efforts through the lens of cancer prevention.
Bonnell said that they are always looking for new members. The Coalition meets on the last Tuesday of the month at the Southeast Regional Health Office, 1736 Purchase Street, New Bedford. The meeting this month is on the 25th at 7 p.m.