Minnesota legislature passed health care reform in 2008, creating the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) after the state fell from first in overall health rankings in 2006 to sixth in 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

SHIP’s long term goal is to decrease preventable disease associated with obesity and tobacco usage.  Twenty-six percent of Minnesotans were obese in 2010 and 17 percent used tobacco.  The program aims to reduce the amount of exposure to tobacco and encourage better nutrition and increased physical activity.

Policies and environmental changes through SHIP are expected to move 10 percent of the adult population into a normal weight category. The state estimates a savings on $1.9 billion by 2015, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The program aims at change, rather than education and awareness, according to Martha Roberts, supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health. “We are not as focused on education of the individual…Research shows it is very hard for people to be healthy, be physically active, eat well, and to not smoke when they live, and work and play in an environment that does not support them,” said Roberts.

SHIP provides competitive grants to Minnesota public health agencies and tribal health agencies to work in four specific sectors — employers, schools, community and healthcare.  Communities create leadership teams that generate strategies for improving health.  Strategies must be based on scientific-based practices from the Center for Disease Control and national research.

Though it is too soon for measurable successes, many policies were implemented since the creation of SHIP.  Over 350 schools incorporated Farm to School into their school districts, reaching over 69,000 students, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Farm to School connects local farmers and students to increase the consumption of healthy foods.

At least 117 schools and are now implementing Safe Routes to School, encouraging over 77,000 students to walk or bike to school.

SHIP has helped 902 child care sites implement more physical activity for over 8,500 children.

In Minnesota, 255 cities have started walk and bike path plans, transformed streets into “complete streets” with sidewalks and crosswalks and increased access to parks, trails and recreational facilities.

In addition, SHIP helped create and improve farmers markets, implement tobacco free policies and encourage exercise and nutrition in the work place among many other improvements.
Roberts emphasizes the need for environmental changes like the ones Minnesota is initiating. She said, “It’s really about making the healthy choice the easy choice.”

(Rebekah Hoeger is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Iowa and was a reporter and photographer at the Dyersville Commercial in the summer of 2011).

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