Attacking the Obesity Crisis

By Ken Walker –

Photo: Todd RomeroWhile it isn’t likely to attract national media attention, the Try This Conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College June 6-7 is a remarkable story of the grassroots awakening of healthy lifestyles in the state.

One of the most tangible signs is the conference selling out in advance. The 350 attendees already registered is more than double the number organizers expected when they started last year.

Funded by a grant from the Benedum Foundation, the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition is the conference organizer. Lending a hand are 20 co-sponsors.

“We’re pleased about this,” says Kate Long, assistant conference director and web site director. “It’s time for this kind of thing to happen. The college is donating its facilities and all 90 presenters are donating their time.

“This is very much a collaborative, across-the-board effort. I think people are sick of West Virginia always being on top of the worst health lists.”

Educational Effort

About 25 exhibitors will also attend the conference. Among them are the state’s Office of Child Nutrition, the National Park Service, Master Gardeners, and Fuel up to Play 60. Co-sponsored by the National Football League, this national program addresses childhood obesity by encouraging kids to eat healthier and get an hour of daily exercise.

Starting at 10 a.m. Friday and running until late afternoon Saturday, the conference will include 30 breakout sessions. These workshops will review such topics as growing or expanding a community garden, workplace wellness, how to get more people bicycling, and planning and funding trails.

Pastor Steve Willis, who I helped write Winning the Food Fight, will be part of a panel discussing how churches can rethink the traditional starchy, high-calorie menus offered at church dinners.

Creating a movement

2.-fresh-produce.-convenience-stores-1024x768A five-member contingent from Huntington will lead a session Saturday morning on the positive steps that have occurred in the city since British chef Jamie Oliver filmed his award-winning mini-series for ABC in the city.

Among the steps the group will review is how the community mobilized and created more running and biking opportunities, trails, fresh food marketing, healthy cooking classes and community gardens.

One of the most sparkling examples of the increased emphasis on fresh foods is the Wild Ramp, the healthy foods market that recently relocated to a new, larger space in Huntington’s historic Central City.

Besides adding two employees, the market expanded its operating hours and is now open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

The Challenge Ahead

Now, this isn’t to say that the state is a bastion of good health. Research by the cardiac program at West Virginia University of 11-year-old students shows that one in five now suffers from high blood pressure. One in four shows abnormal cholesterol readings. Almost a third (30 percent) are obese.

9.-.-anti-diabetes-Amma-sr-center-CDSMAnd, despite the advancements in the fight against obesity, recently Huntington returned to the top of the nation’s obesity list at 39 percent.

However—echoing something I pointed out in a recent blog—Long remarks that is still a seven percent reduction since the federal study that prompted Jamie Oliver’s visit.

“That is a significant drop,” she says. “My gosh—that’s more than a seventh. That’s an enormous decline for a group that big. It’s truly impressive. The media just sees you’re number one in obesity and doesn’t see the improvement.

“I think people have taken the wake-up call seriously. Huntington is undeniably moving forward.”

Second Conference

Long also sees a growing awareness and a desire from people across the state who want to improve their children’s health and avoid the problems that have afflicted so many adults.

As tangible proof of that interest, next year’s Try This Conference is already scheduled for June 5-6, 2015, in Buckhannon. I predict it will be even bigger than this weekend’s inaugural event.