University of Georgia

Empowering rural communities through healthy eating and exercise

Photography By Dorothy Kozlowski
University of Georgia researcher Marsha Davis

Two decades after being named an epidemic, obesity remains a serious and costly issue nationwide.

In Georgia, one-third of adults are obese, and the state paid an estimated $10.8 billion in healthcare costs associated with obesity in 2018 alone. Promoting healthy diets and regular exercise has been the cornerstone of obesity prevention for decades. Countless interventions have worked to teach adults and children alike how to eat better or how to incorporate more exercise into their lives. Few have been successful.

For University of Georgia researcher Marsha Davis, asking someone to make a lifestyle change without the environment to support their efforts is asking too much.

“You can’t say ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ when there’s no opportunity to buy fruits and vegetables in your community,” says Davis, dean of UGA’s College of Public Health.

The obesity burden is even greater in low-income, rural and minority communities, where access to healthy foods or safe places to exercise are often limited.


For the past two years, Davis has led a team of UGA faculty and staff to help Georgia’s heaviest counties enact community-wide policy and environmental changes that support healthy behaviors through the Healthier Together program.

Created through a partnership between UGA Cooperative Extension, the College of Family and Consumer Science and the College of Public Health, Healthier Together takes advantage of UGA

Extension’s existing presence in Georgia’s 159 counties.

“The benefit of Cooperative Extension is that it’s local,” says Laura Perry Johnson, associate dean for extension. “It’s trust.”

From day one, Healthier Together needed community support for the program’s plans to work.

Extension staff helped residents in Calhoun and Taliaferro counties—the first two counties to partner with Healthier Together—form community coalitions, which had a hand in shaping the strategies that would make healthy eating and exercise more accessible.

“When you build that community support and the community feels ownership of what is happening, the program goes on, even if you take UGA out of the picture,” says Johnson.

Three years ago, the only place to shop for groceries in Taliaferro County was the Dollar General, where fruits and vegetables came in cans.

“You can’t say ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ when there’s no opportunity to buy fruits and vegetables in your community.”

– Marsha Davis, Dean, College of Public Health

PeppersToday, Taliaferro residents can harvest seasonal vegetables from a one-acre community garden or purchase fresh produce from a sliding scale farmers’ market. And the school lunchroom now has a salad bar.

Calhoun County’s community coalition has installed raised beds and built shaded gazebo next to one of the community’s new walking trails. Each week, a group gathers at the gazebo to nosh on healthy lunches before taking a few laps around the trail.

This is the kind of change Davis loves to see because it means the community is starting to adopt healthy behaviors.

“There’s more to it than building walking trails and community gardens,” says Davis. “There has to be social support for these changes to work in the long-term. Regular physical activity or making healthier eating decisions has to become the new normal.”

Three more counties, Clay, Dooly and Stewart, will become the next to adopt the program.

Davis will track the outcomes of all five counties for five years to learn whether this approach improves health. She believes the key will be groups like the gazebo lunch party.

“When you see these community members visiting with each other around healthy lunch, making a habit of it, the hope is that others will join them. That’s what I want to see over these five years.”

Marsha Davis

About the Researcher

Marsha Davis

College of Public Health

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