Changing Lifestyles To Fight
Obesity in the Delta
Members of the Marvell Walking Club take a stroll on their
community’s recently refurbished walking trail.
Residents of the Lower Mississippi River
Delta are linked by the muddy waters flowing through the region and by a common
culture, including unique music, literature, and food. Though lower Delta
states share a rich heritage, they also form one of our nation’s most
impoverished and poorly nourished regions.
On average, diets in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana
include 20 percent fewer vegetables and fruits, less dairy products and more
added sugar and calories from fat than the national average. Obesity and
chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer, affect people
living in Mississippi Delta states more than other U.S. residents.
Congress created the Lower Mississippi Delta Nutrition
Intervention Research Initiative (NIRI) to address the health problems of
residents in the three states. Before NIRI was established, research on the
dietary habits of this population was lacking. Since 1995, researchers at NIRI
headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, have been working with their cooperators
to find ways to improve the nutrition and health of the men, women, and
children of the Delta.
Better Lifestyles Through Science
The Agricultural Research Service
is partnered with six universities, state cooperative extension services, rural
communities, and other partners in the three-state region. NIRI researchers
have conducted and will continue conducting a series of surveys to assess the
nutrition and health needs of the Delta region.
Over time, NIRI partners selected three communities in the
Delta region for the initial intervention research efforts. NIRI will help
guide these communities for the next several years, while tracking changes in
their members’ nutrition and health.
These communities—Marvell, Arkansas, and its surrounding
public school district; Franklin Parish in Louisiana; and the city of
Hollandale, Mississippi—were chosen because of the high levels of
enthusiasm community leaders have shown in the past towards the NIRI program
and the dedication community members previously demonstrated towards their
ability to work together at improving their overall fitness and health.
In Marvell, one of three communities chosen for the pilot
program, residents are provided with health and nutrition advice and encouraged
to improve their physical fitness through stretching and exercise.
“These communities are each unique. They happen to
include a school district, a parish, and a city because they each define
themselves differently,” says Beverly McCabe-Sellers, a nutrition
scientist and NIRI’s research coordinator. “Not only do they have
different geographic boundaries, but they each define ‘community’
Part of the problem Delta residents face when searching for
healthy food items is the distance they must travel to find full-service
grocery stores. A NIRI study of 228 stores chosen at random in the three-state
region found that convenience stores outnumber supermarkets and smaller grocery
stores. They found most convenience stores have fewer healthy foods and higher
Currently, NIRI communities are enthusiastically implementing
intervention research to improve individual residents’ health and
nutrition. Using the community-based participatory research model as the basis
for carrying out the Delta NIRI mission, schools and community organizations in
each state are using intervention research to address such concerns as food
choices, eating patterns, food insecurity, and maintaining healthy weights.
At the same time, NIRI scientists and communities are
analyzing the success of the intervention research and will determine which
methods can be used to carry out these programs in other rural communities of
the Lower Mississippi Delta.
According to Margaret L. Bogle, a nutritionist and Delta
NIRI’s executive director, “NIRI partners will share what
they’ve learned about which interventions are successful, while improving
the communities’ capabilities to carry out these types of programs in the
The “rolling store” operated by Reverend Emanuel
Smith (center) has been a big success in Franklin Parish, Louisiana. Shown with
him are Marria Fields, peer educator, and Kathy Smith.
Communities Choose Their Paths
Marvell is one of the three communities chosen for the initial
nutrition intervention research,and it serves as a good
example of the persistence and dedication that will be required to make this
ambitious program successful.Though the school district of
Marvell is rural and contains a small town, NIRI was able to find local
residents with the knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm needed to organize and
run the program.
Marvell initiated a walking club in which dozens of residents
are now taking part. Participants strap on pedometers and don their club
T-shirts each week to get in a good workout with friends. Once a month, the
Marvell Walking Club meets over a healthy breakfast. Health professionals are
invited to give them health, nutrition, and physical fitness advice.
“Community members say they have more energy, sleep
better and feel better, and have less joint pain,” says Willie Allen,
NIRI’s community coordinator and representative from the University of
Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
ARS nutritionists Margaret Bogle (far left) and Beverly
McCabe-Sellers (standing) share healthy recipes with Marvell residents Lucille
Sellers, Glover Williams, and Ora Day.
Marvell already had a walking trail, but NIRI and the city
recently received a state grant to refurbish it. Adding benches, lights, new
pavement, trees, and a water fountain will help create a more appealing
environment for exercisers. The city also received a grant to create a
farmer’s market, which will bring fresh produce closer to residents.
Long-time Marvell residents like Dianne Sims, a NIRI community
outreach assistant, remember in years past when backyard gardens were more
popular in their town. Now, they say, it seems to have become a dying practice
in the region. This could change in Marvell beginning with the formation of
three community gardens, which provide healthy fruit and vegetables for
residents. Volunteers last summer grew a first-year harvest of lettuce,
tomatoes, carrots, squash, green beans, onions, beets, cucumbers, peppers, and
herbs on one small raised-bed plot lined with a few dwarf fruit trees behind
the school district’s administration building.
The goal is to encourage residents to start gardens for
themselves and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. In the future,
the Marvell program intends to deliver the produce to senior citizens who
can’t garden for themselves. Participants say they appreciate the bonus
of the physical activity that gardening requires. A third initiative in the
works will build on the consumption of more fruits and vegetables and encourage
more healthy food choices by residents.
“If we’re going to have a healthy community, we
need healthy individuals,” says Beatrice Shelby, a Marvell NIRI
participant and local community activist. “This has the potential to be a
really great community organization. People are coming to the table and
acquiring the skills they need to advocate on their own behalf.”
The city of Hollandale has mainly focused on one initiative:
Forming an advanced walking club with nutrition components. Community leaders
have received training to become certified instructors, or
“coaches.” Local coordinators have worked with NIRI to install a
walking trail, a basketball court, and a soccer field in a city park.
In Franklin Parish, local NIRI coordinators are working to
expand a weekly truck delivery, or “rolling store,” of fresh
produce and healthy recipes to about 100 participants. The pilot program was
successful, and they hope to join forces with a local grocery store to stock
fresh fruits and vegetables for participants holding special vouchers.
With the goal of improving access to healthy food choices, the
Franklin Parish NIRI is starting a project called “People United to
Sustain Health” (PUSH), which could be implemented throughout the Delta
if it’s successful after 2 years. NIRI plans to screen
participants’ health with such indicators as body fat percentage and
blood pressure, before and after implementing the program, to gauge its
effectiveness. PUSH includes use of local health educators to promote healthy
food choices and physical activity as well as the rolling store.
“Programs sponsored by Delta NIRI help get the word out
that a diet of high-fat foods and a lack of variety, combined with scarce
physical activity and medical care, increase the risk of nutrition-related
chronic diseases, especially obesity,” Bogle says. “Since obesity
rates are much higher in the Lower Mississippi Delta, it is of major concern.
For many, weight loss is the most important factor towards better health.
“At the same time, rural communities are learning what
to substitute to improve their lifestyles in the areas of nutrition and
physical activity. Ultimately, such interventions can empower community members
to sustain these initiatives for a healthy future for their
families.”—By Jim Core,
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Human Nutrition, an ARS National
Program (#107) described on the World Wide Web at
Bogle is with the USDA-ARS
Mississippi Delta Nutrition Intervention Research Initiative, 900 South
Shackleford Rd., Suite 509, Little Rock, AR 72211; phone (501) 954-8882, fax
"Changing Lifestyles To Fight Obesity in the
Delta" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.