Spotlight on Sustainability: Western New Hampshire

Lebanon, NH. Photo via Flickr user Dougtone

With more and more emphasis being placed on personal health in relation to healthy, vibrant communities, western New Hampshire has joined the numerous places around the county working to improve access to healthy food choices for all sectors of the population. Through funding provided by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Challenge Grant, the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission (UVLSRPC) is spearheading an effort to not only assess the geographic availability of healthy food options in relation to housing, but to then work with municipalities who hope to turn that analysis into a concrete set of policy changes that ensure accessibility, lower obesity rates, and improve public health.

Much of the economic and business center of the 27-municipality region surrounding the cities of Hanover and Lebanon is found in the downtown core; home to Dartmouth College as well as a large hospital/medical employment base. But, while many area residents may work downtown, the majority live in surrounding rural communities where stores are only accessible by car, often times at a travel cost of an hour or more. “Lebanon has six major grocery stores, for example,” says Christine Walker, Executive Director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, “Many of the surrounding rural areas have none. This project is really about being able to demonstrate access to meeting the basic needs of residents of those communities.”

According to the USDA Rural Development’s Food Atlas, which aggregates on a county level, in 2006 there were 1,320 households in Grafton County, NH which had no car and lived more than a mile away from a food source. This general data and anecdotal stories from around the region led to the question, “What is the real access that residents have and is there interest in changing that level of access?”

Realizing that the built environment has a direct impact on issues of obesity, public health, and the costs associated with health care, UVLSRPC, with the help of members of the community, is undertaking a study to evaluate what food options are currently available, how distribution of food from local farms can be improved, and how the availability of healthy food options can be increased for all members of the population.

With an aging population and fewer first time homebuyers in the region, the grant money will also fund an assessment to determine the type and location of future housing needs in relation to food sources. The culmination of this work will result in policy audits for three different municipalities and suggestions for policy change to meet public health goals. “If these are important issues to your community, we will be able to recommend the policies that could be amended to make health and accessibility viable options,” says Walker. The policy recommendations will be available for adaptation and modification in any community working on food source issues.

So, far the work made possible by the HUD Community Challenge Grant has been a success. “People are engaged and interested in improving the quality of life in their own community,” says Walker, “The level of energy surrounding this work has been outstanding. There is still a lot of agriculture in the region, so it’s in the interest of residents and the local economy alike to make sure everyone has access to fresh, healthy food.”