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Major state health program will initiate in Perham

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news Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

Healthy lifestyles may become a way of life in Perham, which is one of four area communities serving as a pilot project.

The time is right for an introspective look at community health, because nationwide, average lifespan predictions are moving in reverse.

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For the first time in the nation's history, the present generation's lifespan is predicted to be shorter than the previous generation.

Obesity and smoking will be two targets of the program. But the broader objective is simple: "Get people out of the car. Make walking, biking, a daily activity," said Patrick Hollister, who spoke at a recent Perham Parks and Recreation Board meeting.

Perham is one of four communities and four counties benefiting from nearly $1.5 million in grant money for the health initiative. Along with Breckenridge, Detroit Lakes and Dilworth, Perham will serve as something of a "pilot project" and model for other communities.

The state's 2008 health care reform initiative allocated $47 million to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier, better lives by preventing risk factors that lead to chronic disease.

Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) is the name of the program, and Perham area residents will be hearing a lot about it in the coming months. SHIP representatives will be bringing their story to Rotary, Lions and school meetings; as well as to major employers such as KLN and ACS.

A community input meeting will be one of the early steps in the process. The Perham Area Community Center will host the informational meeting Tuesday, May 4, from 5-6:30 p.m.

"We want to get a community buy-in through the whole process," said Karen Nitzkorski, who is one of the community organizers with SHIP.

Among the reasons Perham was selected as a pilot city, said Nitzkorski, is because Perham is widely known as a progressive, forward-thinking community.

"We're really anxious to get going on this project," said Perham's Ron Anderson, a retired teacher and coach who is serving as one of the local point persons.

Dovetailing with the input meeting will be a public opinion survey, which will be a statistically valid survey covering a broad cross-section of the community. The data will be compiled by professional demographers and statisticians at the North Dakota State Data Center.

The SHIP program goes beyond a simple message of "bike, walk and eat right." A major thrust of the program is fundamental changes in city planning. Land use plans, city zoning and community design will be encouraged to ensure neighborhood access to walking and biking. For example, in the city of Perham, many of the streets are wide enough to create "bike lanes."

"We have a very 'auto-centric' culture," said Jason Bergstrand of the Otter Tail Public Health Office, who is SHIP project manager for the four-county area. Among the goals of SHIP is to alter the auto mentality, so walking and biking becomes a part of daily life.

Diet will be another key component. Perham area resident Julie Skow has been hired to serve as dietician for the four schools involved in SHIP. Perham school administration and staff will also be engaging in the SHIP process-reviewing the school lunch menu for healthier fare, and promoting healthy snacks.

Perham city staff will also play a leadership role with the SHIP initiative. A weight loss program is planned-which will be kicked-off with the entire city staff being weighed on a immense scale at the city incinerator facility. The group will later be weighed again, to gauge weight loss.

Why a $47 million state initiative at a time when Minnesota is facing a massive deficit?

It is a question the SHIP officials hear often.

"Despite the economy, the state knows that health care costs are going through the roof," said Hollister at the Perham park board meeting. "No matter what we think about federal health care reform-costs will rise. The goal of SHIP is if the state spends money in the short run to get Minnesotans healthier, it will lower health care costs in the long run."

"Focusing on prevention will save dollars on the back end," said project manager Bergstrand.

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