Sunday, September 18, 2011
Tennessee's obesity epidemic: Fighting the big fight Efforts range from a veggie garden to fitness programs
Trazana Staples was an unlikely candidate to lead North Nashville’s vegetable revolution.
Four years ago, she tipped the scale at more than 300 pounds. She steeled herself against the inevitable diabetes or high blood pressure diagnoses that awaited.
But Staples had her reasons. It’s much easier to get a super-sized, fast-food meal in her food-desert neighborhood than a bunch of broccoli. Exercise didn’t fit into her daily schedule. But her frustration at being constantly out of breath, even after a few steps, was the catalyst for a lifestyle change.
Now 140 pounds lighter, Staples has applied for nonprofit status for her Another Avenue Cultural Resource Center. The center includes 15 garden beds in her backyard — open to neighbors for the picking — a gathering space in her living room and cooking demonstrations in her kitchen.
“This is my passion, and I’m doing what I love to do by helping others enjoy their life,” she said.
Local organizations as small as Staples’ and as large as Vanderbilt University are fighting the state’s obesity crisis, moved by personal experiences or grim statistics. They’re reaching out to obese Tennesseans where they live, trying to prompt lifesaving changes. But they find clients facing a variety of challenges with money and access to programs.
“Five years ago, it was like, this is the issue we need to be dealing with,” said Pat Whitaker, Rutherford County UT Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.
Her organization takes government housing residents to the Murfreesboro farmers’ market, teaching them how to buy and cook what’s in season. The extension runs parent-child cooking and fitness programs at high-poverty schools in Smyrna and La Vergne and free wellness programs through businesses.
She said most people are already thinking about their weight issues by the time they encounter a program. Lascassas resident Kristy Gates said she’d tried and failed at a couple of commercial weight-loss programs before Whitaker brought her free Tennessee Shapes Up program to Gates’ employer.
Workers met with Whitaker once a week for six weeks to discuss wellness strategies and do some stretching together. They tracked their exercise plus fruit, vegetable and water intake for 12 weeks. Gates lost 34 pounds.
“It was simple. You just carried around your little piece of paper and wore your pedometer,” she said. “It’s the only thing I’ve had any luck on.”
Waistlines have grown faster in Tennessee than in all but two other states over the past 15 years, a recent Trust for America’s Health report revealed. More than two-thirds of Tennesseans are either obese or overweight, producing health issues that some estimate cost the state almost a half-billion dollars annually.
The problem lies in how Americans live, said Richard Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health. Kids don’t play outside after school before starting their homework. There are “sidewalks to nowhere” that don’t provide uninterrupted, safe paths for walking. Many Americans live in suburbs and drive everywhere.
Hamburg’s group seeks policy changes that affect large groups of people, but there’s value in small groups reaching people where they live, he said. Especially in rural areas, people can get positive messages at church, the barber shop or from social groups.
The idea is to get to people before they end up at the doctor’s office with an obesity-related condition, he said. “Anything based on the premise of getting people more active or eating a healthier diet is going to be a good thing.”
Some Tennessee groups are taking note of national initiatives such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity, said Joan Randall, executive director of the Tennessee Obesity Task Force. They’re following suit with their own programs.
“Everybody realizes that obesity has such far-reaching consequences, that it’s not going to be solved easily or quickly,” Randall said. “We all know we have a stake. It’s affecting the health and economy of everyone. Our partners have their respective populations that they serve, and it just totally broadens the audience we can reach.”
Nonprofits that delve into obesity work often look at their current mission and see how it fits in.
Megachurch Mt. Zion Baptist sponsors Church-Fit, large group workouts that attract hundreds of congregants from age 4 to senior citizens. The idea is to assist with their spiritual and physical health.
The Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt recruits youngsters to run its summer farmers’ markets, educating them about nutrition in the process. The Veggie Project brings farmers’ markets to communities with the lowest concentration of grocery stores.
The Junior League of Nashville sponsors Kids in the Kitchen, teaching children how to make healthy lifestyle choices. Next year, the organization plans to add a parent component to its yearly event, which will be held at the Martha O’Bryan Center in March.
“We have a focus on children and child health, and one of those needs is the obesity epidemic,” said Michele Toungette, president of the Junior League of Nashville. “We try to determine what are the unmet needs in our community and how we, through trained volunteers, can support them.”
Candice Cannon, a Springfield mother of four, said the more options Middle Tennesseans have, the better. Diverse programs in varied locations make it convenient to get involved.
Cannon was concerned her 12-year-old son Chase’s lifestyle and family history would make him vulnerable to diabetes. Distractions such as television and video games sometimes prevent tweens from getting active, she said. She recently enrolled him in the Franklin YMCA’s free Diabetes Smart program, where he works with a personal trainer twice a week and meets with a nutritionist once a month to improve his eating habits.
Three weeks in, she’s already seen positive changes in her son.
“He’s understanding more what he needs to be eating and taking it on his own to exercise more,” she said. “This will give him a good foundation.”
Big picture elusive
While groups offer countless anecdotes about individuals whose lives were changed, it’s tough to get a picture of how the efforts affect Tennessee as a whole.
Randall points to Tennessee’s 31.7 percent obesity rate, down from 32.9 percent in 2009. Tennessee was the fourth most-obese state last year, an improvement from the second spot in 2009. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey showed the number of obese high school students fell from 16.9 percent to 15.8 percent from 2008 to 2009, but CDC researchers say it will take years of falling numbers to claim victory as the first state to reverse its childhood obesity rate long term.
“We believe that with the state working together, we have halted the progression (of obesity) and it has been reversed in a number of areas,” Randall said. “We are all following the national trend in a good way.”
But Jim Myers, executive director with Community Food Advocates, said many neighborhoods considered food deserts are on their first step: ensuring everyone has access to quality fruits and vegetables. His organization signs up neighborhood convenience stores for a program that gives them assistance securing fresh foods, small-business support and publicity.
“You can’t begin to have people address their diets if there’s not access to healthy, affordable food,” Myers said. “You have to solve the access piece first and, along with it, the education piece is important. The American palate has such an overdeveloped taste for fat, salt and sugar that it’s hard to re-educate people about what good food is.
“We are tackling obesity on such a scale now that it’s hard to measure (the success), as we don’t have the data on it yet.”
Smaller groups are getting a boost from cities in Middle Tennessee. The NashVitality campaign, funded with a $7.5 million federal grant and administered by Metro Public Health, works to inspire residents to eat better and exercise regularly.
Mayor Karl Dean got Nashville residents moving earlier this year with his Walk 100 initiative, which was part of the campaign. More than 4,000 Nashvillians took to city greenways and park trails, walking more than 100,000 miles in the campaign. Dean has since issued another challenge, rallying residents to walk or run a 5K with him on Nov. 13.
That’s what Kathy Sherrell said she needed to jump-start her weight-loss regimen. The Madison resident said she’s struggled with her weight all her life, but now she’s determined to lead a healthy lifestyle and set an example for her 9-year-old daughter.
She’s captain of the 5K training team at the East Park Community Center.
“I don’t like exercising by myself, and it’s just more fun when you have people with you,” she said. “It’s a good idea the mayor came up with because this is the encouragement a lot of people need.”
Heidi Hall contributed to this report. Contact Nancy DeVille at 615-259-8304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.