First seen in Politico Magazine / Photo Getty
ver a decade ago, Huntington, West Virginia, endured a dose of civic fat shaming when the city was labeled the most obese in the nation. Forty Five percent of the almost 49,000 residents were considered overweight. A hundred percent of the town was appalled at the title.
It didn’t help the reputation of the city when a British celebrity chef turned up to lecture the public schools on their lunchroom fare and quiz children who could not identify basic vegetables. But in the end, it wasn’t an outsider’s intervention that turned the city around.
“To say you’re the most obese, the most unhealthy community in the nation. It was embarrassing,” Steve Williams, a second-term mayor elected a few years after the city received its ranking, said. He saw people shift from saying someone needs to do something to doing something themselves. He has lost 60 pounds himself after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
A decade later, the community and different organizations have joined to address health from different angles, emphasizing eating local food, exercising and healthier school lunches. The obesity rate, 32 percent, is still above the national average of 29.5 percent, but the city was able to drop its obesity rate almost 15 percentage points in a decade.
People ride bicycles near Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
In Huntington, West Virginia, Marshall University offers a bike share program to encourage students to get exercise instead of using cars for transportation. | Washington Post via Getty Images
The solutions stretch from a financial adviser who challenged citizens to collectively “walk to the moon” in a summer with walking buddies. They are now walking to stars and planets. Hospitals in the area started programs focusing on young kids losing weight. A student at Marshall University created a local store-front farmers market that connected people to local food producers.
“There’s no one issue that we’re facing, particularly as significant as obesity that is an issue by itself,” Williams said. “It’s inextricably linked to every part of the community.”
Shelly Keeney, who grew up in Huntington, said two grocery stores have gone out of business in her neighborhood in the past four years. She attributes it to lack of job opportunity. Huntington has a 32.5 percent poverty rate which is nearly twice as high as the West Virginia statewide figure. Unemployment rate is 4.5 percent. Keeney is the director for Wild Ramp, the market started by the Marshall student that sells locally grown food. It has returned over $1.5 million dollars to local producers since opening. It partners with the food bank and accepts SNAP recipients, averaging 50 SNAP transactions a month.
Keeney said the market struggles against the perception that only people with “disposable income” can afford to shop at the market, and they make their prices comparable to grocery stores. She thinks the market is filling an important hole in Huntington, “because the only other type of stores that people have around here are the convenience stores and most of those don’t have fresh produce or meat.”
Mayor Williams highlighted the efforts of the school system and its students to encourage health, as well. Rhonda McCoy, the Cabell County schools food service director, tweaked the menu changes suggested by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, so they appealed to students. Before the chef arrived, the school already made half of students’ meals from scratch. Now they make 80 percent of their food on site.
“If we can ensure that the food children receive through school food programs is nutritious, we can make a tremendous impact of the quality of their lives, now and into the future,” McCoy wrote in an email. Most students get their primary source of food from meals at school. The county serves free lunches during the summer to about 1,700 students and operates many after school food backpack programs.
But students also got involved in their own health. High school students started a wellness group that won a grant for its work in 2017.
“When the students started getting involved, once the families started getting involved, once the institutions started getting involved, it wasn’t: ‘Watch.’ It was: ‘Join in,’” Williams said. “Everybody has a role to play.”