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The Little Town that Cared

How Charleston stopped talking about weight and started losing it.

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Charleston Middle School cafeteria worker Michelle Coffey, left, and principal Becky Bloodworth have seen improvements in students’ eating habits.

Fed up with fat, this little town declared an all-out war against obesity.

They called it the Tallahatchie Health and Wellness Challenge.

And a funny thing happened. Unlike almost everywhere else in the Delta, one of the fattest places in all of America, people rushed to accept the challenge. A total of 170 residents – 13 percent of the adult population — signed up for intensive classes in healthy living, seminars in how to cook nutritious food and a high-profile weight loss contest that climaxed at the annual Gateway to the Delta Festival.

Hundreds packed the square to enjoy the music of Super Chikan, the Gateway Gospel Choir, Kudzu Kings, a mechanical bull, a 5K run and walk, inflatables for the kids and something you don’t normally see at big festivals – booths that offered helpful tips on exercise, healthy shopping and cooking and, yes, how to lose weight. There was even a porkless barbecue, a tribute to Scissors, the two-time world champion hog, a local hero of sorts whose statue sits just outside the city limits.

The winner of the biggest-loser campaign, Trency Bynum, lost 15.2 percent of his body mass – 48 pounds – and won $1,000. He did it by regularly, obsessively walking from nearby Oakland, 12 miles up in the foothills above the Delta, to Charleston until the fat started melting away. The Delta had never seen anything like it: an entire town focused on the battle of the belly.

For Glenna Callender, executive director of the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (C.A.R.E.), which helped spearhead the Wellness Challenge, it was a do-or-die proposition. After all, she said, Tallahatchie County has some of the “poorest, fattest, sickest, undereducated” people in the state.

Local activist Cal Trout, one of the leaders in jump- starting C.A.R.E.’s effort, was stunned by its success.

“(Charleston) is kind of ground zero for a health crisis in the state,” he said. “I don’t know of another place where the town itself got involved in trying to address the issue.” The Wellness Challenge “brought people from every area of the community out,” Trout said. “It was addressed on a town-wide level and I think that is unique, especially somewhere like here, where wealth disparity is so great. People from every corner of the community came together, and it created a dialogue about health and wellness which did not exist before.”

A host of problems

It couldn’t have come soon enough for Dr. Hunter Crose, a local physician from South Carolina. From the outside, Crose noticed the problem right away.

“I didn’t even recognize it as a physician,” he said. “You recognize it as a citizen when you drive through the community. Everyone is obese: Older whites, older blacks, younger whites, younger blacks.”

How did Charleston get this way? Crose attributes it largely to a limited access to healthy food and the strong presence of fast, processed food.

“People told me before I came down here that I would put on about 20 pounds, because the best food you’re going to find is in gas stations,” he said. “They’re right.”

Granted, you can get a “fresh fit” sandwich atthe local Subway or a vegetable-heavy homemade salad at the China Cabinet. The most popular dining destinations, however, may be Mr. Jiffy and Gas Mart, gas stations with hot lines and large dessert tables. The town does have a sizable grocery store, a SuperValu.

Occasionally complicating things, some say, is that among some African American women, curves are viewed as more desirable than being slender.

“I have African American ladies who are grossly overweight asking me for appetite stimulants,” Crose said. “Most folks, you would think, in that situation, would ask for something to curb their appetite to promote weight loss.”

Still, given the alarming rates of teen pregnancy, school dropouts, high unemployment and crime that plague the Delta, Crose doesn’t rank diet and exercise control at the top of his priority list.

“I’m all for health initiatives, but we have a lot of stuff to do in the meantime,” he said.

Callender, on the other hand, decided Charleston’s health couldn’t wait. Callender spends her time directing C.A.R.E., which has helped breathe new life into the town. It has beautified the square, painted aging buildings and produced summer camps and programs that focus on the arts and the history and education of Charleston.

But with 37 percent of the county labeled obese, she saw the health issue as critical to the town’s success or failure.

“That’s not anything we want to brag about or be complacent about,” she said.

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Weaning the children

Oxford publishing entrepreneur Ed Meek, a Charleston native, put Callender in contact with the Department of Applied Sciences at Ole Miss and soon Catherine Woodyard, a doctoral student, arrived in town.

Woodyard focused her dissertation on health research in Charleston. While many adults in the town are obese, the problem is most clearly seen in children, she found.

“Childhood obesity is sky-high,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe, watching these kids get out of school, how much obesity there is in the children. It’s about 20 percent higher than the national average.”

At Charleston Middle School, the problem became so prevalent that faculty members knew what the children had for breakfast, or didn’t have, the moment they stepped off the bus.

“You just smelled the syrup off of them and knew it was going to be a bad day,” said Becky Bloodworth, principal of Charleston Middle School.

This school year, however, Charleston Middle School has taken drastic measures to improve the health of students and faculty. Fryers were removed from the cafeteria, desserts were taken off the menu, and vegetables were introduced, many that children had never before seen. Additionally, physical education and recess have been added, and an unused classroom has been transformed into a faculty exercise room.

“At first, the kids were really mad,” Bloodworth said. “Some of them were refusing to eat, but now they’re fine. The first month they complained a good bit, but now they couldn’t care less whether it’s a white roll or a wheat roll.”

Woodyard was impressed to find how seriously C.A.R.E. was taking the obesity issue.

“They realized that the county itself was very, very unhealthy,” she said, citing statistics that ranked the county 81st out of Mississippi’s 82 counties in terms of health. “As a community, they wanted to address these health issues, but didn’t really know how or have the resources to.”

Gateway to the Delta

Through Woodyard’s extensive research, including focus groups, interviews and health seminars in the community, they came up with the idea for a health festival and weight loss competition.

The town is known for its annual Gateway to the Delta Festival. To spur the community’s interest in health concerns, however, Woodyard and her group of local coordinators decided to center the theme of the festival around health and wellness.

The group, consisting of Woodyard, Trout, Robert Salmon, CEO of Diabetic Shoppe and Callender, along with Tallahatchie General Hospital Administrator Jim Blackwood and the hospital’s dietician, Brady Taylor, came up with the Wellness Challenge. For two months, citizens participated in weight control seminars and health screenings, in hopes of shedding pounds and perhaps winning the top prize at the festival.

Charleston hopes to repeat that success next year. Besides planning for a second Wellness Challenge,the town is excited about a grant from the James C. Kennedy Foundation that will fund a community wellness center, a spinoff from the project hatched by Woodyard. She will be its director. The idea is to provide a place where people can not only exercise but learn how to cook with fresh, healthy foods.

Charleston has “no YMCA, no exercise facilities, no community gym,” Woodyard said.

Now, using momentum from the health fair, “we can hopefully bring change to that community,” she said.

Blackwood, who played a key role in obtaining the Kennedy grant, said that while a wellness center may not solve all of Charleston’s problems, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

“I think, like a lot of complicated issues, there is no real silver bullet,” he said. “There are multiple pieces that need to be pursued. The wellness center could be a big piece of the puzzle, providing education to folks on diabetes education, on nutrition education, on health and wellness, where adults and children can engage in group exercise,” he said.

All of which has Ed Meek excited over the future of his home town. For a while, he admits, he actually stopped going home to visit.

“The town was dead the last time I went over there,” he said.

Once C.A.R.E. began to take charge, however, the community began to pick itself up off the ground. Meek noticed a drastic difference.

“I can’t find another community like Charleston in the Delta,” he said. “There’s not a vacant storefront on the square, and that tells you something about the vitality. C.A.R.E. has brought that back and made a community environment and a healthy environment. Now, is it perfect? No, it’s not.

“Charleston can be a beacon of opportunity for the Delta,” Meek said. “This is a grassroots effort to do something. This is a beginning.”

Screen shot 2013-12-03 at 6.46.09 PMWritten by Lauren McMillin, Deeper South Magazine, The Land of Plenty

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