John D; Winfield T; Etuk L; Hystad P; Langellotto G; Manore M; Gunter K
BACKGROUND: Individual risk factors for obesity are well-known, but environmental characteristics that influence individual risk, especially in rural communities, are not confirmed. Rural communities face unique challenges to implementing environmental strategies, such as walkability, aimed at supporting weight healthy lifestyles. Cooperative Extension, a community-embedded weight health partner, convened and engaged community members in self-exploration of local resources and readiness to change environmental characteristics perceived to promote unhealthy eating and inactivity. This approach leveraged Extension's mission, which includes connecting rural communities with land-grant university resources. OBJECTIVES: HEAL MAPPS™ (Healthy Eating Active Living Mapping Attributes using Participatory Photographic Surveys) was developed as a participatory action research methodology. Adopted by Extension community partners, HEAL MAPPS™ involved residents in photomapping, characterizing, and communicating lived experiences of their rural community, and prioritizing interventions to change the obesogenic context. METHODS: Extension educators serving rural communities in six Western U.S. states were trained to implement HEAL MAPPS™. Extension engaged community members who mapped and evaluated their encounters with environmental attributes that shape their dietary and activity patterns. The method partnered residents with decision makers in identifying issues, assessing resources and readiness, and prioritizing locally relevant environmental strategies to reduce access disparities for rural populations with high obesity risk. CONCLUSIONS: HEAL MAPPS™ revealed differences in resource availability, accessibility, and affordability within and among rural communities, as well as in readiness to address the obesogenic context. Extension functioned successfully as the backbone organization, and local community health partner, cooperatively implementing HEAL MAPPS™ and engaging constituents in shaping weight healthy environments.