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ACHE research designed to reduce food insecurity, promote healthy habits

Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series on the details and potential impact of the $32.3 million donation to the Fort Smith-based Arkansas Colleges of Health Education to create and expand numerous health research and wellness programs. Link here to the first story, and link here to the second.

Research conducted at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) facility at the former Golden Living headquarters in Fort Smith could “be the cornerstone” in improving the health of the community by changing lifestyles.

A $32.3 million anonymous donation to the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, announced June 22, will support a holistic approach to health and wellness and include partnerships with public schools, art centers, a community garden, and a Northwest Arkansas-based culinary study center. The donation creates an endowment that will pay for staff, program costs and construction for the ACHE facility at 1000 Fianna Way.

ACHE acquired the former Golden Living headquarters in 2020 for the purpose of housing a medical research facility and a health and wellness education center. Work on the five-story facility – now known as the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center – is underway and should be complete within two years.

At the time of the announcement, ACHE officials said the ACHE Research Institute Health and Wellness Center will provide a uniquely blended opportunity for health professions and scientific community students from a variety of disciplines as well as other institutions to engage in interprofessional education integrating the arts and clinical intervention with discovery research activities, all with a goal of transforming health and wellness in the community.

Kyle Parker, president and CEO of ACHE, said the 60,000-square feet first floor of the building and 15,000 square feet outside will be converted into a Health and Wellness Center. The facility will include an ACHE Fit Lab for exercise and a clinical trials clinic. There will also be a multi-use trail system that surrounds a small lake; three to four miles of a green XC flow trails for mountain bikes, a one-mile ADA accessible trail, a children’s bike park, and over 1000 square feet of a tree canopy trail to view the beautiful scenery, all designed to improve physical well-being. The facility will concentrate on promoting a game changing culture of health for individuals across the region.

“Since 1990, our state has ranked in the bottom five states for health outcomes including health disparities and chronic disease,” said Dr. Elizabeth McClain, chief wellness officer at ACHE.

In 2019, Fort Smith was identified as a food desert, a community where lower income residents must travel usually more than one mile to access healthy food options, by the Urban Institute. The reduced access to fresh produce, dairy, meats, and other healthy food options increases food insecurity, placing residents at greater health risk. According to state projections from Feed America, in 2021 Arkansas ranked second in food insecurity with 17.2% of the state population categorized as food insecure. Arkansas ranked sixth in childhood food insecurity with 22.9% of minors meeting food insecurity criteria.

Research has demonstrated there is a clear relationship between food insecurity and overall health and wellness, information from ACHE said. Individuals living with food insecurity experience barriers accessing healthy food options, making it difficult to establish healthy eating habits. The center hopes to combat that, McClain said.

“A lot of the different outreach and community relationships that we have and are continuing to build and strengthen I think are going to be the cornerstone to really building a culture and the value of health,” she said.

Though the facility will be a start to that culture, the growth of a health culture will come from more than just a building, she said.

“It’s going to be a long road, but it’s one we want to start. The value of our health is so incredible that we can’t not look out just for ourselves. We have to look out for each other in order to be the healthiest community that we can be,” McClain said. “So in this wellness center, we have to look at our partnerships and see how we can start something that really works within the community and what is sustainable.”

One step in that is research. In most clinical research projects, a subject is brought to a lab. They are on a treadmill, and everything is completely controlled,McClain said. Her hope is that at the wellness center there will be the ability to use the outdoor track and trails to complete research that looks at the factors influencing people in real life.

“When you add a community component to it, that adds that reality, that equity, that access to say okay, as a participant if I go through this, this is what happens,” McCain said, adding that this type of research could allow answers to what type of intervention is needed, what changes need to be made to promote a health culture in a community.

“But to me, the biggest link to that for a change in behavior and improving our lives and improving our health is to be able to have a realistic component that once I leave that controlled facility, I can continue doing things to have maintenance on a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

In order to find those answers, the center will look for grants and research opportunities that allow for a clinical trial where everything is controlled as well as finding a way to incorporate the trails into the trial. One of the biggest challenges when doing community research in this manner is how you are able to carry out a standardized approach in the intervention.

“One of the goals for me in this health and wellness center and the link to the research is how do we how do we structure a clinical trial so we do have it in a controlled and quality environment so we can ensure that the intervention is effective in enriching the outcome that we want or the outcome that our goal is that we prove or disprove our hypothesis and we’re able to move forward,” she said.

A plus to the research, is that once someone completes a research trial, the trails will still be there for the community to use.

“We’re working with the community for a variety of different ways to connect a variety of different trails. In doing so, we increase the walkability that I can go outside my door. I can come home from work or leave work over lunch, and do the same, the same behaviors and skills that I’ve learned, I can continue healthy maintenance. That’s living in the real world. That makes sense,” McClain said.

The research and wellness center and the resources it will have will add to the ebb and flow of the community in a way that can encourage a shift in value of health, she said.

ACHE research designed to reduce food insecurity, promote healthy habits