Little Madelia is taking on Big Soda.

Leaders in the southwest Minnesota community will use a $57,000 Statewide Health Improvement (SHIP) grant in a campaign to persuade people to put down their 32-ounce Mountain Dews and pick up flavored water once in a while.

“It’s not just … saying, ‘Don’t drink Pepsi because it’s bad for you.’ It’s about giving them options,” said Chera Sevcik, who supervises SHIP-funded projects in Faribault, Martin and Watonwan counties. “People get stuck in their ruts. It’s easy to go into the local convenience store to grab a soda. … It’s easy and it’s cheap and it tastes good.”

The dilemma in Madelia is how to make healthy alternatives as easy, cheap and tasty.

The project is a small piece of the state’s unusual SHIP program, which was created by the Legislature in 2008 and will spend $30 million over the next two years to improve the health habits of Minnesotans and reduce unhealthy habits such as eating junk food or smoking.

Few small towns have tried a mass approach to curbing consumption of unhealthy beverages. Madelia is patterning its efforts after Boston’s “Rethink Your Drink” campaign.

Sevcik will ask convenience store operators to make healthy drinks affordable and as visible as flashy soda dispensers.

Workplaces could provide alternatives to soda, she added, noting that one company has cut workers’ use of a snack machine by offering fruit, nuts and yogurt.

The campaign fits a community with a growing number of Hispanic residents, who are statistically more likely to be obese and suffer related ailments. Surveys in 2010 also showed higher rates of soda consumption and obesity among high-schoolers in Watonwan County, where Madelia is located.

Sevcik envisions a challenge by which people create recipes for fruit-flavored water or other alternatives. Maybe one can be declared the official “sugar-free drink of the community.”

Simply taking away soda won’t work, she said. “We’re asking you to rethink it or maybe cut back. When you go in and tell people ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ it puts up barriers right away.”