By Angela Rogalski, senior journalism major, Meek School of Journalism and New Media
One in three residents of Charleston face a diagnosis of adult onset diabetes by end of the current decade
If Mississippians are what they eat, as the truism goes, then more that a third of the people of Charleston, Mississippi, are walking poster children for obesity and the diabetes, heart disease and hypertension that stem from it.
The dire straights threatening the community by the end of the decade, when one in three residents face a debilitating diagnosis of adult onset diabetes as a direct result of high fat and cholesterol diets and inactivity, is written in the latest government statistics.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has, once again, placed Mississippi at the top of the list for obesity among U.S. adults: 34.9 percent, with the South, in general, having the highest prevalence for obesity, at 29.5 percent, throughout the entire country. And obesity among children in many counties in Mississippi is greater than 20 percent.
Many call it a looming pandemic. But rather than ignore the issue, the citizens of Tallahatchie County recently elected to do something remarkable. Last summer, they came together to fight back against a status quo eating them from within and set a precedent for the rest of the state and region to follow.
Summer of 2012
The summer of 2012 saw a change in Tallahatchie County in the direction of a healthier, more positive lifestyle with the Tallahatchie Wellness Challenge. The six-week challenge, conceived in part by Charleston native Cal Trout, chairman of the Gateway to the Delta Festival, and vice president of Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (CARE), included seminars on exercise, lifestyle change and nutrition, as well as scheduled group workouts.
It was Trout who gathered local support in the county and secured business sponsorship for the challenge, but he credits Catherine Woodyard, a Ph.D candidate in health behavior at the University of Mississippi, with suggesting an educational component.
“Catherine’s thinking was, not only should we get the community motivated to lose weight … (but) we should also include health and wellness seminars … in order to educate people on how to exercise and eat right, so that the weight stays off,” Trout said.
Although the expected number of participants was 60 to 80, the final count for the challenge registration came closer to 170.
“We opened the challenge up to the entire county of course, but mostly Charleston residents registered, which means, roughly 13 percent of the city’s population signed up for the challenge.”
Brady Taylor, a registered dietitian in Charleston who took part in the nutrition seminars, said the Wellness Challenge helped crystalize awareness to the problems facing Tallahatchie and the Delta as a whole.
“We were able to get the community involved and to paint a picture for people to actually see,” Taylor said. “The nutrition seminars and the weigh-ins helped to put in focus the changes that we needed to make in our lifestyles that would be beneficial for the long haul.”
When Delmont Bynum began the challenge in the summer, he weighed 315.5 pounds. On September 29, during The Gateway to the Delta Festival, he was pronounced the winner on stage, weighing in at 267 pounds –– with a total weight loss of 48 pounds in about two months.
“My stomach was the biggest part about me,” Bynum said. “And that wasn’t healthy. I’m a big man, I mean, tall and large-boned, but my blood pressure was up, and my breathing could be short when I did any physical exercise.”
After joining the challenge, Bynum changed his eating habits and began a regular regimen of physical exercise. And suddenly, he began to see the weight fall off of him. In turn, his health began to improve.
“I even stopped snoring,” Bynum said. “The physical exercise improved my breathing so much, I was walking five or more miles a day. It was great.”
Eating Healthier at School
With the pandemic of obesity prevalent in the minds of officials in Charleston, mandates also have been implemented to bring healthier foods to school cafeterias. One of the most radical changes was the addition of oven steamers at the beginning of the academic year.
“The combination oven steamer uses super-heated steam to cook foods with less fat, saturated fat and trans fats,” Angie Burnett, food service director for Charleston Elementary, said.
Emily Flautt, who teaches fourth grade at Charleston Elementary, also sees the food and nutrition changes as a positive move.
“The kids had to get used to these changes,” Flautt said. “We, as teachers, had to be there to encourage and support the new foods.”
Flautt also believes that the examples set at home play a large part in a healthier tomorrow for her kids.
“When we started having wheat buns at school, instead of white, the kids were very skeptical of them, because they obviously weren’t used to eating them. But once they tried them and saw they tasted great, there were no problems.”
Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of The National Food Service Management Institute (NSFMI) on the campus of the University of Mississippi, said the changes in the school lunches are just the beginning.
As the research arm of the federally funded (USDA) program which provides research, training and technical assistance to any facility or person who serves meals to children under the federal programs, the NFSMI is at the forefront of efforts to make fundamental changes to lunch programs.
“This year, 2012, we started with lunches,” Wilson said. “The sodium-content is also a big concern. The sodium issue is being divided into two levels. The first level needs to be met by next year, and then the USDA has to do some research and look at what the next level should be. They’re really trying to lower sodium levels in school meals. Manufacturers are also beginning to help with the problem, by realigning their products and redefining what they offer to the schools.”
But the piece we’re still missing in our K-12 curriculums, Wilson said, is nutrition education.
“There’s no standardized curriculum in our country today to teach kids healthier eating habits,” Wilson said. “And we need that. You’re not doing anything until you teach kids why they need to eat healthier and what they need to eat.”
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