The Power of Grassroots Action

The Power of Grassroots Action

By Ken Walker-

The idea that grassroots action can make a long-term difference can often bring ridicule, as shown by Steve Willis’ appearance with Jamie Oliver on the David Letterman show. Steve writes in our book, Winning the Food Fight, “As Jamie discussed his efforts to alter Huntington’s eating habits, Letterman ridiculed the idea that people could change, and scoffed, ‘It will never get any better.’”

To his credit, Letterman later invited Oliver back to the show and apologized for his negativity. Still, his initial reaction illustrates how many people feel when it comes to matters of weight. But after three decades of steadily growing heavier before a vegetarian diet turned that trend around, I know change is possible.

The exciting thing is that Huntington is taking the kind of grassroots steps that are helping it shed its reputation as America’s fattest city. Aside from the winter months, there are so many 5-Ks and other races—including the annual Marshall University marathon—that the city has earned the nickname, “Runnington.”

In addition, the storefront space that served as Jamie Oliver’s studio during filming of his ABC mini-series is now Huntington’s Kitchen. The hospital that backed its conversion and pays the annual rent and utilities recently upped its annual support from $50,000 to $75,000.

There is other activity that almost goes unnoticed. I have heard of several “Biggest Loser” competitions sponsored by various employers in the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Plus, the Huntington Health Revolution, a citizen group formed as a result of Oliver’s Show, is sponsoring another “90-Day Challenge” that concludes with a Healthy Huntington Day, including a 5K run, on April 13.

A long-range view shows the benefit of such gradual steps towards healthy living. A case in point is the recent news that grassroots efforts are making an impact both here and across West Virginia.

During the 2011-12 school year, the obesity rates of fifth-graders screened in a West Virginia University program were 1.1 percent lower than during the previous year, declining from 28.9 percent to 27.8 percent. Abnormal cholesterol readings fell from 26.1 percent to 23.5 percent.

The kindergarten obesity rate also dropped from 17.5 percent to 13.6 percent, the lowest rate in nine years.

Ron Stollings, chairman of the West Virginia senate’s health and human resources committee told the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail: “This is fantastic news. We may be at a tipping point for child obesity.”

Granted, the same report included some bad news, with second-grade obesity rates rising one percent, but it is never unusual to see a backward step amid progress.

While I’m not a dietician or doctor, having lived through it I know the truth: Healthy living is a lifestyle. Fad diets, empty promises and maintaining the “same old same old” need to go out the window.

Every time I hear (or see) one of those ads promising that you can continue eating the same fatty, calorie-laden, or oozing-with-sugar foods if you take these hucksters’ miracle pill, I want to scream, “No! It’s not possible!”

Not only are too many people desperate to shed pounds susceptible to such con artists, a recent survey shows that most people aren’t aware of the far-reaching effects of obesity.

Only 15 percent are aware that obesity can contribute to problems with arthritis, which makes it harder to exercise and lose weight. Just seven percent know that fat increases the risk of developing various types of cancer. Only five percent linked obesity with respiratory problems, although too much weight can lead to sleep apnea and other ailments.

When it comes to healthy eating, many people take the attitude that Michael Pollan mentions in his fascinating book, Omnivore’s Dilemma: “It’s just lunch.”

Of course, that kind of outlook is a prime reason for the continuing inability to shed any pounds. And I know how terrible the status quo can feel.


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