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Creative solutions for a rural community

A Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark success story

Colorful flowers paint the 388-mile stretch of highway that runs through the southern part of South Dakota, known as the Oyate (Oh-YAH-tay) Trail. It translates to “a well-traveled road of nations.” The route provides a slow-paced alternative to interstate travel, with 32 towns and many cultural and historical stops along the way. One of those stops is Martin, a rural town of 1,000 residents.

Martin is distinct in that it is tucked between two large American Indian reservations: Pine Ridge to the west, and Rosebud to the east. “This contributes to quite a diverse population, compared to other rural South Dakota communities,” says Prairey Walkling, SDSU Extension Family & Community Health Field Specialist working with Martin.1

“We are really focusing on programming to educate youth on health and nutrition,” she says. The hard work of several community leaders and volunteers, contributed to Martin winning their first Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Opens New Window Community Award in 2019. This work included the school district’s wellness initiative, a nutrition-based after school program, and a community teaching garden run by local youth, community volunteers and SDSU Extension.

Making healthy options available in schools

Approximately 525 students from Martin and surrounding areas attend the Bennett County School District. To help kids make healthier choices, the schools added water bottle filling stations and began offering healthy snacks and drinks in the high school vending machines.

At the elementary school, they moved recess before lunch. “We were having problems with kids rushing through lunch to get to recess. Now, there is less food waste and the students aren’t in such a hurry to eat. After recess, they get the proper fuel they need to stay on task before going to class,” says superintendent Stacy Halverson. “These simple changes make a huge difference.”

After-school nutrition program for kids

To fill a void in the school district, Martin community members took the lead. “Funding for the after-school program was cut, so some kids were left without a healthy activity during those hours,” says Walkling. “Plus, the school system lacks a family and consumer science program.”

People in the community recognized the need for not only after-school care, but also for children to be taught how to prepare healthy meals. So, they addressed both issues with one program called Kids in the Kitchen, an after-school program led by ten volunteers that teaches basic cooking skills. In 2019, the program received a grant to participate in Bountiful Backpacks, a program that seeks to improve food security by linking nutrition education with food that is sent home. A recipe is taught in class and each child is sent home with the recipe and the ingredients to prepare it at home for their family.

Each recipe provides four servings for $10-$15. The recipes are made using mainly shelf-stable ingredients, which make it easier to transport. Plus, the ingredients are consistent with what's distributed through local food pantries, which can reinforce the continued use of the recipes beyond the backpack program. One Bountiful Backpack recipe favorite is "Easy Ramen Stir Fry," which provides an example of how to make a healthy boxed meal by adding eggs and fresh/frozen vegetables to a low-cost ingredient that many families have on hand.

Currently, there are 20-40 kids, fourth through seventh grade, enrolled in Kids in the Kitchen. Space is donated by the school and the program is funded with local grant money. “Kids in the Kitchen provides a safe and educational place for kids to be each Monday throughout the school year. Tauna Ireland and her team of volunteers are showing amazing community leadership through developing and sustaining this program,” says Walkling.

Local youth harvest the community garden

Meanwhile, another local program is teaching kids of all ages how to plant and harvest a garden. Located between a tribal housing playground and the local youth center, Sunrise Housing Community Garden, which was first planted in 2017, added programming in 2018 to include nutrition classes for local kids who are part of the youth center.

“About 50 local kids and 10 adults took part in the harvest this year,” says Walkling. "There are strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, all kinds of vegetables and herbs. Plus, they have food demonstrations and nutrition lessons.”

For example, kids were taught how to make pesto from basil in the garden this summer. Since many of the children may not have access to a food processor at home, they are taught how to make recipes by hand.

“It’s so great to see a child who has never tried a fresh strawberry picking one and eating it right there,” says Walkling. “They can’t get enough.”

What’s next for Martin?

While 2019 focused primarily on nutrition and eating well, Martin community members would like to see more activities that promote movement in 2020.

The people of Martin want to think bigger and create a healthy community that moves more, eats well and feels better. “At this time, the community isn’t quite sure how they plan to use the award money from Healthy Hometown, but they have a lot of great ideas,” says Walkling. “They have a diverse group of engaged, committed residents who are sure to make something happen in 2020.”

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1SDSU Extension began working with the Martin community in 2015 through the Healthy Food, Families & Communities project, with funding provided by a 1416 Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the South Dakota Department of Social Services, Office of Economic Assistance as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).