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COVID-19 and Rural Nutrition and Fitness in Illinois: Transforming Healthy Communities

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SPRINGFIELD, IL – Illinois must improve access to healthy foods and fitness opportunities in rural regions to improve health in rural communities. Living in a rural area in Illinois is associated with an increased prevalence of obesity, which is linked to a higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Southern Illinois University (SIU) Medicine Department of Population Science and Policy, SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, The University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health and the SIU Medicine Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development have developed a set of recommendations aiming to improve health in rural Illinois. The report finds rural residents struggle to access fresh and affordable food, underutilize the WIC program meant to provide access to fresh food and often live in communities lacking the infrastructure and facilities conducive to healthy lifestyles.

The Rural Health Summit group recommends substantive actions to improve nutrition and fitness in rural Illinois:

  • Invest in programs that allow for the creation of community-owned grocery stores to bring more fresh food to Illinois’ rural communities.
  • Increase participation and retention in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program by streamlining enrollment and re-certification processes.
  • Foster public-private partnerships between governments, hospital systems, community based organizations and private industry to better design and build infrastructure in rural communities to promote healthy lifestyles.

The Rural Health Summit will host a webinar at noon on August 19 to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted rural nutrition and fitness in Illinois. Register for that webinar HERE and see the schedule of upcoming webinars.

“Despite preconceived notions of idyllic backyard gardens and vast open spaces, many rural residents in Illinois struggle with limited exercise opportunities and rely on food with little nutritional value,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, Chair, SIU Medicine Department of Population Science and Policy. “Obesity rates are higher for rural residents than their urban or suburban counterparts, which leaves rural residents at a greater risk for more severe COVID-19 infections and worse outcomes. These recommendations aim to improve health and wellness in rural Illinois and ultimately make it a healthier place to live.”

The policy recommendations are the result of discussions from rural health stakeholders, community leaders, legislators, physicians and experts from organizations throughout Illinois and build on the Rural Health Summit’s initial report, “Building a Healthier Rural Illinois: Understanding and Addressing the Challenges of COVID-19.”

The Rural Health Summit is releasing monthly topic-specific policy briefs and hosting corresponding webinars through January 2022 on topics of an aging rural population, mental health, public health systems, nutrition and fitness, children’s growth and development, workforce development, opioids, health and housing and economic development.

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