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Big health project homes in on DL

Karen Nitzkorski is going to find out if an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

She is the local face of an ambitious $1.4 million state project called SHIP (for statewide health improvement project) designed to help Minnesotans lead healthier lives.

The focus of the first big effort is childhood obesity, and Nitzkorski -- SHIP's community organizer for Becker, Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties -- has hit the ground running.

She had to -- there isn't much time: The program ends at the end of June, 2011, and may not be extended if the state's finances continue to be deep in the red.

She has been working with Detroit Lakes school officials to put together a "walking school bus," which is when a group of children walk to school with one or more adults. Children are picked up at designated "bus stops" on the route.

By walking with a parent volunteer, it provides a safe, fun way for kids to get to school, while staying physically active.

"Our real goal is to start this fall," she said. "It's usually about a 20-minute walk." There will be training and background checks for the volunteers.

SHIP aims to make policy, systems and environmental changes in schools, the community, the workplace and in health care facilities.

A policy change would be a change in laws or regulations, such as creating tobacco-free public places or providing time off from work for physical activity.

A systems change means a change in organizations, such as school districts offering healthful snacks or doctors talking about tobacco use and obesity at every visit.

Environmental change is a change in decisions about land use, zoning and community design to make sure people have access to healthy foods and places to safely walk and bike.

Five interventions are planned -- two in Detroit Lakes schools and one each in the community, the workplace and health care facilities.

The initiative is putting its funding to good use -- there are about 10 people on staff in the four communities that are the focus of the initiative --Detroit Lakes, Perham Breckenridge, and Dilworth.

Those staff people include a school nutritionist and organizers working with schools, businesses and clinics and hospitals. An "active living planner" who worked as a Chicago city planner is also on the team. Nitzkorski said city and school officials in Detroit Lakes, in particular, "have rolled out the red carpet -- they've just really embraced this."

A community-wide meeting will be held to give residents a chance to weigh-in on the initiative. It is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 27 at the Historic Holmes Theatre.