The Heart of New Ulm: A Community Project for Healthy Living

Home of beer, brats, and butter, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a quaint small city a couple hours south of Minneapolis populated by about 14,000 people, many of German ancestry. They are on a 10-year mission to move more, eat better, and reduce heart attacks -- and it's working!


In 2008, town leaders decided to do something that would impact New Ulm, Minnesota, and its residents for years to come. They designated their community's health as a top priority and began taking action by installing sidewalks and parks. At the same time, Kevin Graham, M.D., former cardiologist and president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, and Dick Pettingill, former CEO of Allina Health System -- who both knew coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and worldwide -- were planning a long-term community project to reduce risk factors for heart disease and, ultimately, reduce incidences of heart attacks. "Our German heritage put beer, brats, and butter on the menu too often, widened our waistlines, and escalated our heart disease risk factors," says Rebecca Fliszar, RD, a community dietitian in New Ulm. To implement the project, Graham and Pettingill were looking for a community that was ready and willing to change.

The Heart of New Ulm

Even though New Ulm had heart disease and diabetes risk factors a bit higher than national averages, the town was chosen more because of vision and infrastructure than diet and disease risk. New Ulm already had support and facilities in place, and Graham, who traveled there for years as a cardiologist, knew firsthand that if the residents of New Ulm bought into this program, they would ensure its success. Another key factor: The New Ulm Medical Center, part of Allina Health's electronic health-records system, contained data on more than 90 percent of the New Ulm population. The project was named Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm.

The Program Starts

New Ulm, in essence, is a big petri dish. "Our mantra for the project is, 'Innovate, demonstrate, replicate' -- test and learn what works best in New Ulm, then replicate programs and models of care to create healthy communities throughout America," says Jackie Boucher, RD, CDE, director of the Heart of New Ulm.

The project is integrating healthy-living habits into every nook and cranny of people's lives. The goal: "Prevent heart attacks from happening by creating a healthy culture that supports people's efforts to prevent or manage modifiable cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated glucose levels," says Charles Stephens, M.D., the Heart of New Ulm local medical director. This makes sense not only from a disease perspective but from a financial one, too. Heart disease is a big driver of health care costs across the country. In addition, by reducing the risk factors for heart disease, the community will be reducing incidences of type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and certain cancers.

All Hands on Deck

To transform a community into one where healthy living reigns supreme calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach. The Heart of New Ulm employs staff housed in both New Ulm and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. But raising awareness, doing screenings, holding events, and more takes a village. Support now comes from all sectors of the community, including employers, government leaders, health care providers, and hundreds of residents. "We have district leaders who, as volunteers, generate ongoing programming and ideas, and help locate instructors, materials, and supplies to make events happen," Fliszar says.

One community member who has joined the Heart of New Ulm brigade of activists is George Cottom, owner of George's Fine Steaks & Spirits, a downtown restaurant. George has had type 1 diabetes for 25 years and is an avid runner. He's involved in the initiative to get restaurants to offer healthier menu items based on nutrition guidelines that include more vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthier fats, and smaller portions. "No sweat; our healthy items are easy to make and are profitable, too. I win and New Ulmites win," George says. "To see people take the Heart of New Ulm project to heart fills me with pride. After all, we're just a little German community."