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Editorial: State's efforts to curb obesity gain attention

Jul. 15, 2013 @ 12:15 AM

The Huntington area knows full well the negative publicity that can result from the high obesity rates in West Virginia.

After a nationally distributed Associated Press story a few years ago pegged the Huntington area as the fattest in the nation, a spotlight was placed on the city. That resulted in a television series featuring a celebrity British chef who came to Huntington to try to help the city change its ways. That brought even more notoriety.

The unfortunate part was that Huntington -- in fact, most of Appalachia -- could hardly discount the attention because West Virginia and the region indeed had among the highest obesity rates in the country. The good news is that efforts locally and statewide have intensified to change those numbers. The result of that work was recognized last week at a national conference in Washington, D.C.

West Virginia was among four states and five cities or counties from across the country invited to have panelists at a Voices for Healthy Kids conference because they have measured declines in their childhood obesity rates. Representing West Virginia was Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, medical director of the Children's Medical Center & Healthy Kids Pediatric Weight Management Program at Charleston Area Medical Center.

Voices for Healthy Kids, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association to prevent childhood obesity, cited an improvement in the obesity rate of West Virginia's fifth-graders. That rate fell from 30.5 percent in 2005-06 to 27.8 percent in 2011-12, a decline of 8.6 percent.

West Virginia has adopted several strategies. Among them are requiring healthier meals in public schools, constructing parks and walking or biking paths and trails, and supporting community gardens to grow more vegetables. In Huntington and Cabell County, all of those initiatives have come into play in the past several years through efforts and collaborations involving the school system, city and county governments, businesses, non-profit groups, churches and individuals.

The recent numbers suggest that the work is paying off, and that's why the Mountain State was included in the conference. "That's really why we wanted to bring these communities together in Washington, to educate others as to how they've been able to do it," said Bill Roach, chairman of an advisory committee to the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative.

He and others recognize that West Virginia's rate -- as well as rates across most of the country -- are still far higher than desired. But the Mountain State currently is among one of only five states in the nation showing a reversal, a trend to be celebrated and built upon. "This is the first sign that we have at least stabilized the epidemic," Jeffrey said, "and now we need it to make a big U-turn."

That should be the goal moving forward.

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