PORTLAND — As we observe national Rural Health Day on Nov. 17, we would do well to acknowledge one of the challenges facing Maine’s rural residents. We hear on a weekly, if not daily, basis about the high number of children and adults who are overweight or obese.

Nationally, the estimates are 68 percent of adults and 32 percent of children are overweight or obese.

As these estimates have grown over the past several years, public health officials have suggested that we are raising the first generation of Americans who will not live as long as their parents, due to the chronic illnesses associated with being overweight, such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and arthritis.

For several years, I have been observing that rates of obesity are higher for rural populations at both the national level and in Maine.

Particularly disturbing is the rate of obesity among Maine’s rural, low-income children. Maine’s overall rate for children is lower than the national average, at 28 percent. But for rural children, the Maine rate is 32 percent; for low-income Maine children, the rate is 40 percent, and for rural low-income Maine children, the rate approaches 50 percent.

Since healthy eating habits are a major factor in preventing obesity, in a recent study, my colleagues and I at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland explored the food environment in several of Maine’s rural communities. We looked at small local markets and supermarkets, but also looked at the home food environment and asked families about gardening, hunting, fishing and animal husbandry.

We found that rural low-income families are smart shoppers. If they have to drive 30 miles to a large supermarket, they make that trip count. They bring along their coupons, they have a cooler in the car, and they have a freezer at home to take advantage of sale prices.

They know which stores have fresh produce, and which days to shop to get the freshest. And a majority of the families we surveyed supplement their diets by gardening, hunting and buying from local farmers.

Our measures of home food availability confirmed that these strategies result in a healthier home food environment. Perhaps most importantly, we found that parents’ eating behavior is the strongest influence on children’s eating behavior. It is not enough to provide healthy food to your kids. You have to show them how good it is by eating it yourself.

Unfortunately, our study confirmed that rural low-income kids are more likely to be obese. We suspect that physical activity, as well as other aspects of the food environment such as fast food, snacks and school lunch menus, may explain this disparity.

So we concluded that many factors lead to a healthy home food environment, but parents have to model good eating habits for that environment to make a difference, and since many other elements of a child’s environment contribute to obesity, parent behaviors may help children to make healthy choices outside the home.

Findings from our study will be published in a national journal in a few months. But this kind of new information can be useful to public health workers, parents, and local and state policymakers, most of whom are not likely to read such journals.

One of the promising ways that new findings can find their way directly into the hands of decision makers is a new information network being developed here in Maine.

A partnership between Maine Rural Partners and the New England Rural Health Roundtable is developing an online peer-to-peer network for people working in public health, wellness and prevention to communicate and share information about best practices, issues of interest, current initiatives and available resources.

Keeping rural people connected with current, useful information is challenging and this Maine Rural Health Network initiative should help us meet that challenge.

— Special to The Press Herald