Walking Together to a Healthier Future with Linda Fondren

Walking Together to a Healthier Future with Linda Fondren

“Linda, I wish I’d lived my life more for myself.”

That’s what Linda Fondren, founder of ShapeUp Mississippi in Vicksburg, Mississippi, said her fifty-four-year-old sister told her before she’d died of brain cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had made her sister regretful, Fondren said; it was the obesity. Because of her weight, her sister couldn’t move around as much; it was her heaviness that’d truly physically restricted her, not her illness.

Six months after her sister’s passing, Fondren opened her women’s-only gym, Shape Up Sisters, for women like her sister, who wanted to work out and lose weight and didn’t know how. Her listening ear and dedication to transformation created waves of change that have given not only her but also the City of Vicksburg national attention for their efforts.

Her sister wasn’t the only thing that spurred Fondren to action. The Vicksburg native was fed up with the stereotype: Mississippi being first in everything bad, and last in everything good.

“Growing up in a state with a legacy of poverty, over-the-top obesity rates, so many other things we can name, and also having family members who passed away from obesity-related issues, I became determined to educate others about exercise and eating well with an emphasis on community support as a key to long-term solutions,” she said. “Those people who have passed on, they couldn’t take a step for themselves. I figure we as a community should take a step for them to succeed.”

Since starting her work, Fondren has helped her community lose over 15,000 pounds in a community challenge. She helped turn Vicksburg National Military Park into a forum of health and discourse, where citizens can take exercise walks while simultaneously participating in facilitated dialogue about the park’s history. The City of Vicksburg as a whole has made serious progress since Fondren and other likeminded individuals mobilized the community to focus on their health; this year, Vicksburg was among 200 communities nationwide who won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize for demonstrating “unwavering efforts to ensure all residents have the opportunity to live healthier lives.”

Fondren says nothing she does would be successful if she didn’t listen to the community about their needs. “Health means so much more than simply not being sick. Health could be a mom wanting a safe place for her children to go outside and play. Some just want a grocery store close in their neighborhoods. Some just want to be able to play outside without listening to gunshots.”

Thanks to Fondren’s influence, more walking trails have been added in the city. Every time one’s finished, Fondren plans a group walk there to bring awareness to it.
“If you’re not celebrating your successes, how will people know?” she said. “This is how we have city pride.

I like creating change. I like to get together and try to find solutions and figure out what role can people play. When you get together, and you can do that and you’re talking to people, people start asking: ‘What can I do? How can I serve?’ And when we get together, we come up with solutions on how thing can happen.”


Linda’s Tips on How to Build a Healthier Community

How one of the healthiest companies in Mississippi makes workplace wellness easy

How one of the healthiest companies in Mississippi makes workplace wellness easy

Kellye Smith is a resource specialist for Ross & Yerger, one of the largest privately owned insurance agencies in Mississippi with offices in Jackson, Tupelo, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In Jackson, Ross & Yerger employs 116 individuals who have on-site access to a gym,  on-the-clock half hour per week to exercise, quarterly health and fitness challenges and occasional food kaleidoscopes, colorful events where employees learn about and sample new foods—mostly, new fruits and vegetables.

So it’s no surprise that in 2016 the Mississippi Business Journal ranked Ross & Yerger the healthiest privately-owned, medium-sized company in the state. It’s a well-earned title, and reflects its commitment to health in the hard data; the company has a 96.5 percent employee retention rate. Its employees’ overweight BMIs and cholesterol levels dropped 11 and 18 percentage points since 2008, respectively.


Eliminating Obstacles to Good Health

So how does a company in Mississippi, oft-cited as the unhealthiest state in America not only for adults but also for children, do such good work? Smith says it comes from making health an institutional priority for the company, and eliminating obstacles to good health for their employees.

“We’ve seen enough research to know if your workplace is not a healthy environment you’re going to have a hard time keeping people in the most physical sense; if you have sick employees, how good is that going to be to your workforce?” she said.


A Company-Wide Goal

Good health is an institutional goal at Ross & Yerger. Its leadership team is deeply invested in making sure employees enjoy going to work, Smith says, and surveys employees to ask them what they want—an effort they take seriously and continue to tweak and drive so that it’s part of the work culture. “When you come to work here, pretty quickly after orientation, we’re going to sit down and have a conversation about the wellness program,” she says.

Wellness for Mind and Body

The company doesn’t focus on physical wellness alone, either; employees have access to free counseling, quarterly seminars on stress relief and a CEO, Smith says, who is invested in the happiness of his employees.

“A successful wellness program is if you can prevent one heart attack from happening,” she said. “You don’t have to make everyone radical vegans or marathon runners. Get them to a place that’s easily sustainable so that we can prevent the onslaught of health conditions that we see in the state of Mississippi. To be able to combat that is really what we’re trying to do here.”

Try some tips from Ross & Yerger you could replicate for your own business:

1. Make health a priority
Ross & Yerger’s healthcare system wouldn’t work well without organization. Consider developing a comprehensive wellness plan for your company. 

2. Build camaraderie
Teamwork makes the dream work. At Ross & Yerger, employees can complete fitness challenges together.

3. Set the example!
From the top down, Ross & Yerger prioritizes physical and emotional health.  Invite every person in your company to participate!

Food Hub Keeps Local Produce In Mississippi

Food Hub Keeps Local Produce In Mississippi

msliftIn 2014 a group of restaurant owners and chefs came together to create Soul City Hospitality, which brings local, Mississippi-grown produce to the state’s restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and farmers markets in order to support Mississippi agriculture and create a culture of health through locally-sourced natural ingredients.


Prior to the creation of the Up in Farms Food Hub at the heart of Soul City Hospitality’s Locally Invested Food Trade program, farmers had to travel to multiple locations all across the state in order to sell their produce. This meant taking away from valuable farming time, driving up costs of travel expenses, selling what they could (and often nothing at all) to farmer’s markets, stores, or even on their own on the side of the road. It was an ineffective system that didn’t guarantee local produce was getting to the table of Mississippians. And, often, food went to waste.


The Locally Invested Food Trade Solution was to create a centrally located “Food Hub” in Jackson. The Food Hub, located next to the Jackson Farmer’s Market, essentially solved the problems farmers faced when trying to sell their produce. It reduced travel times because now farmers only had to travel to one central location. It guaranteed buyers for their produce. It increased time to get back to farming, and it kept local produce in state, providing healthy food sources for Mississippians and reducing waste.


Locally grown produce stayed local and went to Mississippi’s restaurants, stores, and schools. The Food Hub created a resilient and sustainable food system, brought better, seasonal produce to MS schools, contributed to the growth of the Mississippi farming and agricultural sector, and ultimately helped to create a culture of health for Mississippians of all ages while aiding to a strengthened agricultural economy.

Sustainable Success

As the LIFT program continues to grow, the Food Hub model can be applied to regions all across the state so that farmers far from the Capital City can travel to their nearest hub. These hubs can support the local restaurants, schools and other buyers, making Mississippi’s food systems even more localized. This will also allow farmers to connect one-on-one with business owners, which will strengthen the relationship between our agricultural and business sectors. As these two sectors begin to work together more and more, not only do they benefit from each other, they also solve a pressing social issue which will help to create a culture of health for all Mississippians.