Children living in rural areas are at a 20 to 50 percent higher risk of being overweight or obese, and researchers at the Oregon State University Extension Service are about to launch a three-year program to find out why and figure out ways to change it.

“Research has shown that rural communities have more problems with obesity in kids,” said Patty Case, associate professor at the Klamath County OSU Extension Service. “We’re not sure what the factors that cause that are, but we’re hoping to find out with this project, and hopefully change it.”

Bonanza and Chiloquin kindergarten through sixth graders will take part in the program intended to figure out links between how local communities influence the health and well-being of the children who live there.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the school district to partner with the OSU Extension Service to provide some learning opportunities to our students,” said Klamath County School District Superintendent Greg Thede.

Program funding

The program, funded by a $4.8-million grant for Generating Rural Options for Weight-Healthy Kids & Communities, is part of a statewide project under the direction of the Family & Community Health program of the OSU Extension Service.

Two communities each in Klamath, Clackamas and Columbia counties will participate, said Case.

“At the end of this project we will hopefully have a better understanding of what works in these communities to help make kids healthier,” she said. “We can then share that information with other communities in Klamath County and throughout Oregon.”

Health assessments

Case and Laurie Wayne, Family, Community & Health education program assistant at the Klamath County OSU Extension Service, will do health assessments on students at both towns’ elementary schools beginning next week, Wayne said.

“It’s a food desert, in both Bonanza and Chiloquin,” she said. “We’re looking at these two communities, but we’re not picking on them. It’s the same in most rural communities.”

Often people in rural areas don’t live near shopping centers that carry fresh produce and other healthy foods, Wayne said. Or, the cost of those items is just too high for families to afford.

Getting acquainted

Wayne has spent the last several months getting acquainted with both communities and their residents.

“This has been an ongoing process and we’ll be looking at kids, their families and the community,” she said. “We’re hoping to be able to tip things toward a healthy future for kids.”

Case said both towns have been welcoming and open to the project.

“We are really obliged to these communities that they allow us to come in,” she said. “We know that they have the answers and they may even have the tools. We are just going to be the connecting point.”