Liberal taking positive steps for healthy food availability

Residents enjoy living in rural Kansas for the open spaces, strong communities and simpler way of life. That environment, however, can bring challenges, such as restricted access to healthy foods. Poor diets can affect overall health and lead to obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

One community searching for ways to overcome these health issues is the southwest Kansas town of Liberal.

Residents of Liberal and other Seward County communities have diligently worked to find creative solutions to improve health through the availability of healthy foods.

Now, one national report indicates the efforts are working. According to the 2015 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Seward County ranked 25th out of 101 Kansas counties (four counties weren’t included in the rankings), up from 56th in 2014.

With community support, the Liberal Area Coalition for Families, funded by a Kansas Health Foundation Healthy Communities Initiative (HCI) grant, has educated the community about key indicators of health. The coalition was instrumental in the passage of the Healthy Initiatives Policy – Healthy Vending Resolution by the Liberal City Commission.

As part of the resolution, Liberal’s recreation center, food trailers and summer pools modified their snack and meal offerings with items that meet specific nutritional standards. Residents now have healthier food choices with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free/low-fat dairy products, as well as lower amounts of saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.

And it’s a welcome change, said dietitian Susan Lukwago of the Liberal Area Coalition for Families. Children and parents approve of the new menu, and concession sales have increased.

Lukwago, who has lived around the world, credits the Liberal community with making positive change in a short time.

“We have the chance to make a bigger difference to more of our people and in more people’s lives,” she said. “You can see a difference being made much more here than I ever saw living in a bigger place.”

Liberal is only one example of a successful HCI community. The coalition has received additional chronic disease risk reduction grants from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to hire staff to plan and prepare meals, and conduct taste tests to ensure children like the nutritious food items sold at parks and recreation centers. The goal: help children make healthy choices while they’re young and forming lifelong eating habits.

It’s these types of changes, like those happening in communities across the state, that are moving Kansas toward a healthier future.

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