Strengthening Community Health Connections

The Business Leadership Network collaborates with Iowa’s smaller communities to address health needs.

a participant in a cooking class in Wapello County receives a free slow cooker


At one community forum hosted by the Business Leadership Network, an industry leader commented that it was not uncommon for as many as 15 percent of his employees to be sick on any given day. From his individual perspective, the business owner had no way to know if this was part of a trend rep-resenting a community-wide health concern. He didn’t know if other business or the local schools were experiencing similar absences, for instance. And without knowing the cause of the higher numbers, how could he hope to fix the situation?

Finding and addressing the roots of community health issues is a central goal of the Business Leadership Network (BLN). Founded in 2011 through the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy, the BLN and the grants program it oversees is intended to foster collaboration in Iowa’s smaller communities to tackle areas of identified community health need.

Gathering Community Input

A key to the program, says Tara McKee, coordinator of the BLN, are community forums that foster conversation and help leaders discern patterns and needs.

“We start with a planning group,” says McKee of the process that goes into organizing a forum, “including the chamber of commerce and other business owners, the schools and the nearest community college, United Way, bankers, hospital administrators, and local public health officials. We ask them about the most immediate public health needs in the community, and from there, we narrow to three or four topics.” To date, topics of interest have included food insecurity, diabetes, and dental care.

During the forums, community experts present on the chosen topics, while UI College of Public Health faculty and staff provide relevant research and examples of successes from other communities. Beyond this collaborative sharing of knowledge, McKee says the forums are vital networking opportunities at which local leaders find others with common concerns. That business owner with the high absentee rate, for instance, could compare notes with a county public health official, or connect with a UI faculty member who studies absenteeism.


kids enjoy after-school activities at Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge
Kids enjoy after-school activities at Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge.

Partnering for Success

The grant program, which is in its second year, adds another layer. Not only do the BLN Community Grants provide financial support, but the program also requires partnership in order to qualify for funding.

Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge has been awarded funding in both cycles of the BLN grant. Charles Clayton, CEO of the nonprofit that was founded in 2004 to provide more after-school athletic, mentoring, and educational opportunities to young people, says the grant has been helpful in gaining more partners. “People are more likely to jump on board as a result of our work with the University of Iowa,” he says. New partners include the Fort Dodge Police, who are teaching an exercise class, and coaches from the local public schools, who are volun­teering their time as referees.

After receiving the BLN grant last year, the nonprofit was able to expand weekend activities for kids. Hearing from many of the participants’ parents that they wished they had more access to fitness and athletic opportunities, Clayton and his team applied for the second year of the BLN grants and is now offering weekend family sports activities, such as dodgeball and volleyball, as well as fitness classes aimed particularly at single mothers.


uniforms await games at Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge
Uniforms await games at Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge.

Making the Most of Meals

In southeastern Iowa, the United Way of Wapello County is using its BLN grant award to extend a burgeoning program intended to help families learn easy, healthy cooking skills based on available and affordable food items. Via the grant, 25 families monthly are receiving free Crock-Pots. During a monthly class led by a registered dietician from the local Hy-Vee grocery store, participants make three meals, which they can take with them, and receive recipes for their slow cookers.

While many families rely on the local food pantry, they tend to gravitate toward easy foods, such as frozen pizzas and pasta. The Crock-Pot program will help them take raw ingredients, including fresh vegetables, dried legumes, and various meats, and create healthy meals that will extend the food and also provide greater nutrition. The recipes are specially designed to be easily edited for changing ingredients. A turkey chili, for example, can be made entirely vegetarian to reflect the availability of beans at the food pantry, or venison can be substituted during hunting season.

“We are hoping to challenge the assumption that everyone in our community is fed,” says Blaire Siems, director of the United Way of Wapello County and point person for the grant. She adds that, “Twenty-five percent of the children in Wapello County are hungry, so there’s a pretty good chance the parents are hungry, too.”

The cooking classes and the families they serve are but one thread in the complex tapestry of a community’s health, but the BLN grants are built on the belief that strengthening such threads is instrumental in supporting the health of the entire community.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of InSight.

Watch a video from United Way of Wapello County that highlights the Crock-Pot cooking classes that were partially funded by the Business Leadership Network’s community grant program. The segment starts at the 3:43 mark.

Study looks at role of social connections, socioeconomic inequalities in child nutrition in rural India

A girl in India eating watermelon.

Researchers are increasingly studying how people’s social connections affect poverty and health inequalities. However, little is known about how a family’s social relationships – who they know and what organizations they belong to – contribute to children’s health in low- and middle-income countries such as India, especially when it comes to addressing inequalities in child nutrition.

A recent study led by William Story, University of Iowa assistant professor of community and behavioral health, examined how different forms of social capital may mitigate as well as sustain or reproduce socioeconomic disparities in child underweight. The researchers define social capital as “household members’ actual or potential resources inherent within personal and organization-based networks that can be used for pursuing individual or collective goals.”

For example, a household may belong to community associations, clubs, or religious groups or have ties to influential individuals such as medical professionals, teachers, or government officials. In the context of child nutrition, these social connections may provide immediate access to necessities such as food, informational resources (e.g., parenting advice), and medical services to overcome socioeconomic constraints.

William Story

Story, along with his colleague Richard Carpiano, a sociology professor from the University of British Columbia, analyzed data on 9,008 rural-dwelling children from the 2005 India Human Development Survey. They examined how socioeconomic status shapes household access to and child health benefits from three different forms of social capital located inside and outside the community.

“We found that higher household wealth is associated with greater access to social capital,” says Story. “Additionally, we found that social capital can benefit poorer households in the absence of other resources. However, wealthier households can use social capital to further improve child health and, in some cases, reproduce child health inequalities.”

The study, published in the May 2017 issue of Social Science & Medicine, can be used to guide future research on social capital and disparities in child nutrition and health, and to inform the design of effective interventions in low- and middle-income countries.

Toolkit supports moves toward healthy options at school concession stands

Adults with children in youth sports are familiar with the urgent emails that arrive under desperate subject lines like: “Volunteers needed for the concession stand! PLEASE HELP!!!”

For every parent who slips on plastic gloves to handle food or stays late to help clean up, there are other volunteers and administrators working behind the scenes to make sure the booth is adequately staffed, well supplied with the most popular items, and operating profitably.

Concession stands sales at school sporting events are often an important source of funds for student activities, but University of Iowa researchers have found that providing healthy options at concession stands is also good for sales and for customer satisfaction.

photo of guide cover
Get the free guide “Improving the Nutrition Environment Through Changing Concession Stand Options: Eight Steps to Making Healthy Improvements”

A new toolkit available from the University of Iowa’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) provides practical assistance to help youth concession stands add healthy options to the menu — and maintain profits. The toolkit, available for free download on the PRC website, will assist groups to determine goals, choose probable changes, devise a purchasing plan, assess the profitability of changes, implement the plan, and keep track of set-backs and benefits of the changes.

“Making sure there are some healthy options available helps the school send a consistent message about healthy eating,” says Helena Laroche, assistant professor of internal medicine. “It also helps families watching the game with healthy options for themselves and their children.”

Previous research by Laroche and colleagues found that concession stand changes to incorporate healthier foods were well received and revenue remained high. Some foods like nacho cheese or popcorn oil were changed (no trans fats, less saturated fat) and other healthy options (chicken sandwiches, granola bars, fruits and vegetables, trail mix) were added to the concession stand menu. Modifying current food options and adding other healthy options has proven to be effective in concession stands, according to Laroche’s research.

For more information on Laroche’s research, see or contact Dr. Laroche at

The University of Iowa Prevention Research Center is one of 26 university-affiliated research centers funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct applied public health research. The Iowa PRC, directed by Professor Edith Parker and based the Department of Community and Behavioral Health in the UI College of Public Health, has research themes focusing on nutrition, physical activity, and aging. For more information, visit

Askelson takes part in Communicating Ideas workshop

Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor of community and behavioral health, recently took part in the UI’s Communicating Ideas workshop. Participants gain practical tips for crafting and honing their messages and have an opportunity to record a brief video clip about their research. Askelson discussed how to support children in making fast, easy, and healthy food choices, especially in the lunch room.