Mighty Bold Manistique

Rural places face significant health challenges in the United States. According to data from CountyHealthRankings.org, rural places rank worse on health behaviors, health outcomes, and access to clinical care than their urban counterparts. So it takes some mighty bold thinking and acting for a small town to create a healthier community in just five years.

In 2009, two dozen community leaders in Manistique, a town of 3,000 in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, met to think creatively about how they could improve the health of their friends and neighbors. Schoolcraft County, home to Manistique, ranked 60th in the health rankings among Michigan’s 82 ranked counties.  Community leaders in this town knew they could do better.


Michigan's 2015 County Health Rankings. Click here to see how your county measures up!

Michigan’s 2015 County Health Rankings. Click here to see how your county measures up!

Mighty Bold Manistique Webinar
October 15, 2015 from 12:00 – 1:30 PM ET
Click here to register!


What motivated them? They knew that doing better on health isn’t good just for health’s sake. Health is critical to helping families get ahead economically. Healthier adults are more likely to work and earn more for their families. And healthier families are more likely to keep what they earn, given that health care costs are one of the most significant causes of financial hardship and bankruptcy in the United States. Addressing health challenges in a rural community like Manistique, where the median family income hovers around $25,000 in an economy based on tourism and paper, means helping families do better all around.

An ad hoc community group in Manistique – including leaders from the city, the hospital, the school district, a local tribe, the chamber of commerce, and a retiree – identified two aspects of health where they thought they could make a difference: healthy foods and walkability. They wanted to increase resident access to healthy, delicious foods, and they wanted residents to have safe and easy ways to get where they’re going on foot.

First, the group helped start and grow a local farmers market. Having an accessible market expands resident access to fresh, nutritious produce at an affordable price. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians wrote and received a USDA grant to help promote and improve the farmers market. The county transit agency that serves seniors and disabled residents then extended transit hours to match the market’s schedule, and now regularly transports market customers to buy fresh food. The market began to utilize Project FRESH to help mothers with children aged five and under buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and the local health department is now seeking financial resources and approval for local residents to use SNAP Benefits (food stamps) at the farmers market.  The market is also helping the school district make connections with local food suppliers so they can add local produce to their breakfast and lunch menus.  The schools went one step further to add an Exemplary Physical Education Curriculum that is energizing kids with more exciting physical activities.

Manistique Farmers' Market

Manistique Farmers’ Market

And to get the rest of the community more active, the group conducted a “walking audit” to identify problems with sidewalks and crosswalks that might make walking difficult or unsafe for pedestrians. They sought and received a grant to help improve pedestrian infrastructure around the schools. Spurred by the investment, the town decided to make similar improvements on all roadways and sidewalks, including installing benches on street corners so pedestrians could rest if needed. The town has now adopted a full non-motorized transportation plan that also includes bike paths. And it has invested $7,000 in buying a special snow plough to keep the sidewalks clear all winter. Weather alone can’t keep Manistique’s hardy families from making healthier “get-there” choices!

The focus on health brought about by these investments is making a difference. Kerry Ott, one of the leaders of Manistique’s effort, who is with the Luce Mackinac Alger Schoolcraft District Health Department, sums it up: “Overall, we have been changing the conversation and the way people think about their health. We are thinking about everything we can do to have an impact on residents’ behavior and making the healthier choice.” Ott will also tell you that Manistique could use a million dollars to accomplish everything they want to do, but the coordinated effort in Manistique, despite limited resources, has started a movement.

The community’s efforts have attracted major attention. In 2013, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded the project its prestigious Culture of Health Prize. And in 2014, the Michigan Fitness Foundation recognized the work with the Promoting Active Communities Award.

To explore Manistique’s story further, we’ve asked Kerry Ott to join us for a RuFES Webinar on October 15 to walk us through Manistique’s story and to answer questions. How did it work? What did it take? And what have they learned? We will also be joined by Karen Odegaard, a Community Health Improvement Specialist with CountyHealthRankings.org, to explore the health data they have available for rural counties nationwide and how you can use it to organize community leaders for a collective health effort in your community.

RuFES is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.
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