May 21, 2024

A healthier Newton: Rockefeller-funded, Vilsack-supported partnership to inspire widespread change

Three upcoming projects of a Rockefeller Foundation-funded, research-focused partnership aim to promote physical activity and healthy eating habits throughout Newton.

Still in its early phases of development, the Newton Community Health Partnership is a collaboration comprised of several local stakeholders working with the University of Iowa and Grinnell College project teams — led by students, faculty and staff — since late 2018. The partnership’s goal is to create community health and wellness programs and initiatives for Newton, all the while conducting research and collecting data to better implement permanent changes.

Representatives from the City of Newton, MercyOne Newton Medical Center, Newton Community School District, Newton Development Corporation, Newton Hometown Pride and several other organizations in town have opted to take part in the partnership, which has been funded through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

During an invitation-only dinner for partnership stakeholders Thursday evening at Legacy Plaza (the former Maytag Corporation headquarters), former Iowa Gov. and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who supports the project, said the Newton Community Health Partnership is guided by people “who are passionate and interested in this issue” and wanted to work, specifically, in Newton.

“The reason they wanted to do work in Newton is because they knew it was a community that was open to new ideas, open to community activity, open to tackling tough problems,” Vilsack said. “This community has had to tackle quite a few tough problems. This complex that we’re in is an example of this resilience that is the hallmark of this community.”

Linda Snetselaar, associate provost of outreach and engagement at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, is one of the investigators in the Newton Community Health Partnership. She said Newton has been “so responsive” to the changes and in developing projects for its community.

“We have such an incredible working relationship with them,” Snetselaar said. “I teach a class in the evenings. It’s related to nutrition and policy change. But what I’ve done in my class is have my students learn from the community what they might want. And my students are now doing projects that are focused on what the community said would be important to them.”

According to a recent Newton Community Health Partnership update, the University of Iowa and Grinnell College have determined two focus areas for the collaboration:

• Promoting physical activity and community connections through the built environment.

• Promoting healthy eating through local and national food partnerships and educational programs.

To address both focus areas, project leaders have developed “a corridor study, an enhanced summer programming project and a meal app and meal delivery project.”

The corridor study is to “support active transportation between key points of interest,” including the downtown district, schools, DMACC campus and Legacy Plaza, among others. Largely driven by public input, the projects could include “enhancements to sidewalk accessibility and connectivity, streetscape improvements and other aesthetic enhancements.”

Enhanced summer programming will largely impact Newton schools. Teaming up with the Newton school district and Iowa Valley Resources Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council, the partnership will further promote the district’s summer healthy eating program and increase participation and develop new activities during summer 2019.

Creating more educational activities “such as food tasting and cooking demonstrations, workshops on food composting and food waste, seed-saving workshops and procuring local food in the summer” will expand and benefit the existing program.

The partnership with RC&D will allow better sourcing of local food for summer meal programs and facilitating communications with farmers to coordinate field trips. Newton Community Health Partnership teams will also address any “transportation and accessibility concerns” families may face when participating in summer programming.

The Newton Community Health Partnership researchers have also teamed up with Dr. David Katz from Yale University to develop a self-monitoring eating habits app, which “includes goal setting and easy-to-monitor pictures of dietary food patterns.” The app will be provided free of charge to a select group of Newton families, which will provide feedback to project researchers.

The partnership will also work with a meal delivery company that is in the process of developing a new line of meals Newton Community Health Partnership claims are “both healthy and low cost” for the consumers. A small number of Newton families will be able to take part in this program free of charge in order to test its “feasibility and effects on health.”

The nursing and registered dietitian services of the Newton Hy-Vee will be utilized to collect data over a six-month period, specifically assessing “body mass index, waist circumference and several biological health markers.” If successful, the partnership will look to expand this into a larger study to include other Iowa communities.

Snetselaar added, “We’re actually going to be looking at lipid levels, blood pressure, blood glucose — trying to see if this intervention we do with the app and the meals that are delivered makes a difference in terms of what happens with those kinds of parameters that would tell us that risk factors are going down in terms of cardiovascular disease or diabetes.”

As an investigator, Snetselaar said she tries to think of ways in which the Newton Community Health Partnership teams can study a variety of programs that would help make people healthier.

“So this is perfect because it’s in a community and we think we can do more by being in a community,” she said. “We will be seeing what happens.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or