Heart of New Ulm Project: A Community's Quest to Eliminate Heart Attacks

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Town That Lost 7,961 Pounds," January/February 2013

How the town of New Ulm joined together to lose weight, lower cholesterol levels and eat healthier.

The Town That Butter Built

New Ulm was settled in 1854 by German immigrants and today claims to be statistically the most German town in America. But this is the just the first in a long line of the town’s claimed superlatives: New Ulm is home to the second-oldest family-run brewery in the U.S., the August Schell Brewing Company; what may have been the world’s largest processed cheese factory; and the largest butter-packaging plant in the U.S.

The butter plant is locally famous because, in 2004, an explosion blew melted butter all over the town center. “We literally had a million pounds of butter running through the streets of New Ulm,” says HONU’s Rebecca Fliszar, R.D., who is in charge of local nutrition initiatives. “The city was coated in it, and it just smelled like popcorn.”

Targeting an entire community’s health isn’t a novel concept: big National Institutes of Health-funded studies like California’s Stanford Five City Project, the Pawtucket Heart Health Program in Rhode Island, even the Minnesota Heart Health Program have screened residents for cardiovascular risk factors and then intensively educated them about changing their behavior—eating better, exercising, stopping smoking.

But if it were as easy as education, we’d all be slimmer, fitter and healthier. These older programs posted ambiguous results or effects that didn’t last once the intervention ended.

Boucher wanted to do more than the big NIH-funded studies, even though she had far less money to work with. After studying scores of other attempts to improve community health, Boucher proposed to not only educate folks and teach them about the changes they need to make, but most importantly, she wanted to envelop them in a supportive environment. “The environment [unhealthy food options, little opportunity for exercise] works against you,” says Boucher. “That’s why I think it’s so important to focus on environmental changes.”

Next: Return on Investment »

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