Community Colleges Aim to Spur Better Health

On a cold Friday afternoon in February, a group of students, faculty and staff members gathered in a warm teaching dining room on the campus of Nash Community College in Rocky Mount to break bread together — and learn how to bake it.

As part of the school’s effort to stimulate healthier living in the rural community, a culinary teaching chef showed the group how a few simple substitutions in ingredients could turn an ordinary loaf into something much healthier and tastier.

“People couldn’t believe all the nutritious goodness that was packed in,” says Trent Mohrbutter, vice president of instruction and chief academic officer at the school.

Sometimes, he says, it takes small steps — especially when shared by a group or community — for individuals to make big changes.

Inspiring people in rural communities to live healthier lives by providing them with better access to information about health and wellness, and to opportunities to visit a doctor, exercise and eat more nutritious food, is the focus of a 10-year, $100 million investment by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

Launched by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in 2012, Healthy Places NC is investing up to $100 million to improve the health of residents in 10 to 12 of the state’s most rural and financially disadvantaged counties.

As part of that initiative, the Trust is providing support designed to help seven community colleges become resources and catalysts for healthier living on their campuses and in the counties they serve.

Working with MDC, a research and consulting nonprofit in Durham, the schools are undertaking a broad range of projects. For example, Beaufort County Community College is hosting health summits. Edgecombe Community College is creating a natural playscape on campus. Halifax Community College is establishing a clinic on campus. McDowell Technical Community College is serving the campus and community through telemedicine.  Rockingham Community College is creating an “edible” greenhouse. And Western Piedmont Community College is developing a campus-wide healthy lifestyle initiative.

“The goal of our initiative is institutionalizing the idea of influencing healthy behavior and improving health outcomes into the colleges,” says Dan Broun, senior program director at MDC. “If they’re successful, even when the funding ends, that will be part of the way business is done at the campus.”

Change agents

Community colleges in rural counties are naturally positioned to stimulate healthier living in their communities. The schools often rank among their counties’ larger employers, and their classes and cultural events during the day and in the evening attract a steady flow of students and visitors.

The schools train workers who can join the local health-sciences workforce. They offer programs and facilities such as physical education classes, gyms and walking trails that give students and employees opportunities for physical activity. Some offer direct health services for the community.

“Community colleges serve some of the most vulnerable populations in a community,” Broun says. “There’s a lot of opportunity to make lasting change in terms of the goals of the initiative, which is to dramatically improve health outcomes in these distressed counties.”

Providing access

Living in counties that rank among the lowest in the state on indicators that measure socio-economic status, residents of Eastern North Carolina typically have less access than people in more affluent counties to “healthier food options, and to some extent to health and wellness opportunities,” says Mohrbutter at Nash Community College.

Another hurdle to healthier living in the region is a limited local “knowledge base” about health and wellness. “Everybody knows donuts are not good for you,” he says, “but just saying that doesn’t necessarily provide knowledge to people.”

Thanks in part to its support from the Trust, the school is working to make it easier for local residents — including its students, faculty and staff — to find out how to eat better, stay fit and be healthy. And it is providing them with tools to practice what they learn.

A February seminar on baking healthy bread, for example, was held in an interactive classroom across the hall from a culinary teaching kitchen equipped for Nash Community College’s programs on restaurant management, and culinary and hospitality management.

Instead of flour and sugar, the culinary teaching chef leading the seminar used honey and “spent” grains, including those high in protein but low in carbohydrates — ingredients that produced a lower calorie count. Seminar participants watched him prepare and bake the bread, then sampled it. And they left with the recipe.

The seminar was one of six scheduled for the spring semester. The school also received a grant from the Trust to equip its weight room and cardiovascular room. With the new equipment, more employees and students are using the fitness rooms.

“Once you start doing something that has value,” Mohrbutter says, “the students and employees not only come to value it themselves, but they also come to expect it.”

To get the word out about its healthy-living efforts, the school launched a communications campaign that uses social media and features articles in an e-newsletter it distributes every Friday throughout the county.

“As we expose students and employees to the opportunities — anyone who comes into contact with the college — we will expand their knowledge and experiential base,” he says. “Then it becomes part of what they do, and that’s behavior change. Whether students, employees or community partners, they come, they learn about something, they try it, they experience it on their own, they come back again, and before you know it, their lifestyles have changed, hopefully for the positive.”

Learning together

Heathy Places NC has created a “learning network” among the schools. A newsletter keeps all participants up to date on projects at each campus, and on best practices.

Critical to securing future funding for campus health and wellness projects, says Broun of MDC, will be the ability to show the difference they make on indicators that reflect students’ health and are tied to public funding.

“What ultimately could be most valuable” in addition to healthier living, he says, “is if people see that investing in these initiatives has an impact on increasing measurable things like student retention and completion.”

The Trust’s Healthy Places NC initiative is currently working to improve health in the rural counties of Beaufort, Burke, Edgecombe, Halifax, McDowell, Nash and Rockingham.