Schuessler Ware wonders what happened to the neighborhood schools to which kids walked from their homes.
Mary Stonebraker hopes healthy changes to school menus will help convince students to eat better at home.
And Tracy Sims wishes people could even remember what good health looks like.
Those were just some of the comments that emerged from a focus group on Alabama’s obesity crisis, held at The Anniston Star’s offices in late May. The Star’s editors are hoping for even more observations and ideas at a town hall meeting coming up this week.
The Star will host a screening of the HBO documentary “Weight of the Nation,” followed by a town hall discussion on the state’s epidemic of obesity, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Anniston City Meeting Center. Everyone is invited.
“What we want to do is create awareness of the problem, and to create a conversation,” said Bob Davis, editor of The Star.
Obesity rates across the country have risen at a fast pace in recent decades, leading government officials to fret about a coming cascade of medical expenses.
It’s a trend that showed up first in our neck of the woods. County-by-county statistics, collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show epidemic obesity spreading out from the Deep South and other impoverished areas like rising floodwaters. In 2004, Alabama’s Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta were among the few large areas where more than 30 percent of the population was considered obese. By 2006, the trend had spread across Alabama to include Calhoun County. By 2009, Black Belt levels of obesity had swamped most of the South, leaving a few areas of economic high ground, such as the suburbs of Atlanta and Nashville.
Now America is seeing the same sort of spread with diabetes as it saw with obesity, the CDC numbers show. In 2004, to find a community where 1-in-10 adults were diabetic, you had to travel to the remotest parts of West Virginia, or a Lakota reservation, or to South Carolina’s “corridor of shame.”
By 2006, Calhoun County had joined the 10 percent club. By 2009, 64 counties in Alabama had a 10 percent rate of diabetes.
By hosting public discussion of the problem, Davis said, The Star may be able to help the community find a solution.
“We can’t solve this problem in a day,” he said. “It involves thousands of choices, made by individuals, by cities and counties, by businesses. There’s nothing that’s walled off from this conversation.”
That’s the spirit that was in the air at The Star’s May focus group, where panelists offered a wide range of ideas about obesity, its causes and its solutions. Here are some of the responses:
Dr. Carla Thomas, Anniston physician
“To get a global effect, you have to have global support. Sure, some of us can lose weight through our own means, but one shoe will not fit every foot. We need a variety of approaches to the problem.”
“There’s another concept that’s out there called ‘complete streets.’ It’s the idea that all your streets should have a sidewalk on at least one side, with wheelchair corners, so people can use them if they’re in wheelchairs or on bikes.”
“If I’m a person who’s not in the medical field, how do I know if I’m obese? Do I just look at my clothes? One of our goals could be a scale in every house. And a poster that tells you whether or not this weight is good or bad. The official formula (for Body Mass Index) is kilograms over meters squared, and I’m not sure people can do that in their heads.”
“A lot of people will say, ‘I’m having to take this blood pressure medicine that’s costing me $200 a month. What can I do instead.’ Well, we can lose 10 pounds over two months’ time. ‘Well how do you do that?’ Now I got my foot in the door. I can then talk about ways to change diet … but weighing daily is essential. The scales do not lie.”
Mary Stonebraker, director of child nutrition for Calhoun County Schools
On healthier lunches in schools: “It’s been going well in elementary schools. The high-schoolers will balk. They don’t like it. They want what they want — they don’t want whole grains, they don’t want fruit, they don’t want vegetables, they want it fried. It’s a lifestyle change, it’s something you’ve got to put into place, and it’s not just in the lunchroom. It’s got to be in their home life, it’s got to be a lot of different things.”
“The key is education. People know what an apple is and what a grape is. There are a lot of fruits out there people don’t know a lot about. If you can just get them to try it, they find out that they like it … At least in the school setting, they can get introduced to those items.”
Schuessler Ware, teacher and coach, Anniston High School
On physical education: “You can’t just give them a ball. They’ve got to do some things. It’s got to be an activity. It’s got to be social.”
On better lunches – and nutrition education – in schools: “We’re adapting slowly. It’s taking some time, but we’re slowly getting it turned around. But it has to be reinforced at home … Some type of incentive or program might prevent them from slipping off campus to get something else to eat.”
Darin and Tracy Sims, managing partners of Pinnacle Research Group, an Anniston medical research company
Darin: “Food is an addiction that, unfortunately, you can’t do without. You can educate a person in how to go about losing weight, but it has to be constantly reinforced, almost like how AA meetings work, where it’s reinforced on a daily basis.”
Tracy: “I think anything that can be done to educate is good. Just about everyone in the world is confused because we get such conflicting information from the media. When I try work with diabetic patients, I find that they don’t know what healthy is. It’s not their fault. I grew up in a family that owned a health food store, so I grew up with talk about nutrition my entire life, so I guess it comes easy to me. The larger population had no clue. They know cheeseburgers aren’t healthy, but they think Diet Coke is something good.”
Darin: “We spend way too many dollars on health care. It’s a threat to our national well-being, our national security. The wealth of our nation is being spent in the wrong places. There should be more of a national focus on it.”
For more information on The Star’s town hall meeting, call 256-235-3560 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Town Hall & Film Screening” in the subject line and invite your Facebook friends.
1-in-3: Number of Alabama high school students who are overweight or obese
2-in-3: Alabamians over age 25 who are overweight or obese
1-in-10: Alabamians who have been diagnosed with diabetes
Weight of the Nation
What: Town hall meeting and screening of the documentary “Weight of the Nation.”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Anniston City Meeting Center