This past week, we sat down with Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi to learn about the work this group is doing to combat youth tobacco use and childhood obesity. Read on to learn more about Sandra, and reach out to her via her profile.
Name: Sandra Shelson
Title: Executive Director
Organization: Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
Having worked on tobacco issues and seeing the costs on chronic illnesses from tobacco, and seeing that Mississippi is the most obese state, it was easy to take a step back and see what is associated with obesity and inactivity. Knowing that the tobacco work we did made such an impact on the state, we wanted to look at the burdens that we are going to be facing because of the obesity epidemic. We wanted to address this head on. We believe that it is not about people merely pushing away from the table and getting up and exercising. Countering the obesity crisis is not as simple as going out for a walk. A lot of this is about a lack of healthy choices. We need more access to places to walk that are safe, and that is a policy issue. At The Partnership, we want to raise awareness and link this to what is happening and demonstrate to lawmakers that there needs to be access to healthy food and safe places to walk. It's heartbreaking that some kids don’t have access to food at home, and their parents will feed them what they can. I want to figure out ways to help my state be healthier, and try to find ways for people to have healthier options. We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
We have a lot of initiatives. We are working with schools and communities with nutrition and physical activity programs. The Partnership also facilitates the statewide obesity coalition, Mississippians for Health and Wellness. The Coalition has approximately 300 members. We also have done extensive work with school health councils in individual schools. It is great to see people starting to pay attention by connecting the dots on what they eat and how good it is for you. It's not about what size jeans you wear; it's about the quality of your life.
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
My biggest accomplishments are participating in getting a Shared Use Agreement passed, and participating in USDA Farm to School grants. We are also having success with the Healthy Students Act. Every school is required to have a health council, and they are to conduct an assessment using the Student Health Index, and then address any deficiencies that found. Understanding the power of what a coalition can accomplish at the local level, I was struck by the potential for change that this represented. If these councils are given the power and tools that they need, they can help change the culture of health at the school, and eventually in the community.
We received a grant from the Mississippi State Department of Health and started with 17 schools around the state. We provided assistance with moving the School Health Council from paper to reality, and provided technical assistance with performing the School Health Index. At the end of the grant period, we gave each school a $500 gift card to be used to address one of the deficiencies that they found through their assessment and they had to report to their school boards about the work they were doing.
We were just awarded a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to expand work in three counties for the next two years. I’m excited to see what this will do for the state. The hard part is done and it's in the law. Working at that individual school level to give them something that is meaningful and long-term is very important to making a significant difference in our obesity rates.
What do you look forward to most about your job?
I love that everyday there is something different. It's always exciting to know that the work you are doing is having an impact on the lives of so many people. Mississippi has few resources and great needs. It's rewarding to be able to chip away at some of them. I love what I do. I've loved what I've done since the day I walked in. I work with people who are passionate and they are all mission oriented. It's an exciting place to be.
What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up?
I love watermelon. It has always been one of my favorite snacks in the summer. I grew up with banana popsicles and Oreos, but now my kids are the readers of the labels and are very passionate about what they are putting in their body.
Each week, our own Amy Stone speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Amy's profile and contact her.