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Changing Habits, Including Her Own


As town manager of Mount Gilead, N.C., Katrina Tatum works to improve the quality of life for the 1,200 residents she serves. In this role, she’s helped institute policies to serve healthier foods and drinks for the town’s recreational programs, including a summer camp for kids. Tatum also led an effort to upgrade the town’s planning and zoning ordinances to require sidewalks in new developments, encouraging physical activity. Our friends at Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities recently profiled Tatum, and shared her story with Inside Track.

When FirstHealth of the Carolinas, a comprehensive health care system, received a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant for Moore and Montgomery Counties in North Carolina, they knew they needed strong partners.  

As a result, they reached out to leaders from a number of local communities for help in removing barriers that keep children from being active and eating right.

Katrina Tatum, the town manager of the small community of Mount Gilead, immediately jumped on board. Not only is Tatum always looking for ways to improve quality of life for the residents she so passionately serves, she also knew this might help her break some of her own unhealthy habits acquired as a transplant from Washington, DC.

“Everywhere I went in North Carolina they fed me — fried chicken and potatoes,” she says. “There was food at every meeting and I quickly gained a lot of weight.”

Tatum led the successful effort to implement a Healthy Foods policy in Mount Gilead that is designed to ensure healthy foods are served at town-supported events. This policy covers all town meetings, potluck and catered events, community health fairs, and town-operated children’s programs.

With a population of nearly 1,200, the town employs and reaches many residents through its community events, and now serves food such as roasted chicken, salad, fruits and raw vegetables.

“We don’t have the fried chicken and the whole hog meals anymore,” Tatum says. “At first, adults complained. I heard comments like, ‘We thought we’d be eating something decent today,’ but then they found they liked the alternatives.”

The first step toward creating this policy was to serve healthy foods, snacks and beverages during the town’s summer park program for children, which serves 30 to 60 kids daily. “Instead of feeding them what we thought they wanted to eat (like hot dogs), we feed them what they should eat and they love it,” Tatum says.

In addition to healthy food policies, Mount Gilead upgraded its planning and zoning ordinances to require sidewalks in new developments with at least four units. The town also added low-grade lights to their walking trail using a mix of donations and grants to fund the enhancements. Mount Gilead’s efforts to encourage activity helped use of the local track to triple, Tatum says.

“Katrina is a true leader and really embraces our work helping small, rural communities become healthier places, especially for children,” says Melissa Watford, Health Education Specialist for FirstHealth Community Health Services and Project Director for the HKHC initiative. “She’s not afraid to create policies or present policies to the town council. In fact, she’s been very effective with policy changes in the town.”

Compassion and Tenacity

Tatum worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development in D.C. before moving to North Carolina, where she was hired to handle housing issues for the Lumber River Council of Governments. Through what she calls “divine intervention,” she moved into town management. Through an additional series of serendipitous events, she became the interim town manager and then town manager of two small towns.

She walked into difficult situations where communities were struggling financially and worked hard to strengthen their systems and boost their fund balances. In both places, however, she was asked to resign and believes it was racially motivated. “The political atmosphere changed and, in one case, she was told that the new mayor said, ‘No woman, and certainly no black woman, will ever hold that title in this town.’ Living in the north all my life, racism wasn’t overt that way, I wasn’t used to it,” Tatum recalls.

It would have been easy to quit trying. However, she was raised in a military community, “which gave me the discipline and structure I needed.” She was also raised by a multicultural family. One grandmother is white, one is Indian and her grandfathers are black. “I had a diverse upbringing, and that’s made a difference in how I react to people. It’s made me understand the importance of equality,” she says.

In her own work, Tatum says she is drawn to working with senior citizens and children, because they’re often the ones people forget about.

“Seniors pay their bills; they don’t complain,” she explains. “They may live in hazardous, unhealthy conditions and never say anything. I meet with them and help them fill out applications to fix their houses. I think they deserve that.”

And the kids? “I guess that’s because I’m a kid at heart.” She paused and then said, “I was abused as a child myself, so I like to see all children happy and healthy and having fun. Children are supposed to have fun; they’re not supposed to have bad things happen to them. I work to try and help kids stay kids a little while longer.”

Katrina’s tough but fair-minded mindset has served her well, even when she didn’t think it would matter. When Katrina was being interviewed for the Mount Gilead Town Manager position, she didn’t think she had a chance. “Here I was this black woman in the south going to an interview with an all-white panel and staff. I laughed and said, ‘They’ll never hire me. It’s North Carolina,’” she says.

They liked that she wasn’t a “yes-woman” and she, in turn, was drawn to them.

“The first year here, we didn’t have a town Christmas tree to light, so we turned on street lights and all the shops stayed open late and people went from store to store, talked and ate hors d’oeuvres,” she says. “After it was over, I walked through downtown and it started snowing. There was such a peace in this town and I knew this is where I wanted to say. Right here in Mount Gilead.”

And that sits well with Watford, who described Katrina in glowing terms. “She’s confident. She’s passionate. She’s smart. People respect her. She says it like it is, and she gets things done. When we meet with her we always leave saying, ‘Wow, she gets it.’ We come in with the public health lens and she helps us see what it’s like on the ground and how a small community can make some amazing changes.  If we could have duplicated Katrina, we would,” Watford says.

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