January 27, 2020

How the 'fattest city in America' cut its obesity rate by 15 percentage points

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 9, 2021.

    Over 10 years ago, CDC named the city of Huntington, West Virginia, as the most obese city in America, with about 45% of the area's adults considered to be obese. But through various efforts, Huntington now has cut its obesity rate by nearly 15 percentage points, LJ Dawson reports for Politico.

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    The 'fattest city' in America

    CDC data published in 2008 showed nearly half of the 49,000 adults in the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area, which spanned five counties, were obese. According to the data, Huntington led the United States' 142 other metro areas in six indicators of poor health, including rates of diabetes and heart disease—both of which are linked to obesity.

     

    As a result of the data, Huntington "endured a dose of civic fat shaming" that only intensified "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," Dawson reports. She notes, "A hundred percent of the town was appalled at" Huntington's new title as "the most obese [city] in the nation."

    Steve Williams, Huntington's current mayor who was elected a few years after the city first received its ill-famed ranking, said, "To say you're the most obese, the most unhealthy community in the nation. It was embarrassing."

    How Huntington responded

    So Huntington took action, implementing a number of strategies aimed at helping its citizens lose weight, Dawson reports. The efforts included a challenge for area residents to collectively "walk to the moon," hospital programs focused on helping children lose weight, and a new local farmers market that partners with food banks and accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

    Shelly Keeney—who directs the farmers market, called Wild Ramp—said the market fills an important void in Huntington, noting that two of the city's grocery stores have closed over the past four years, likely because of the city's lack of employment opportunities. Huntington has a 32.5% poverty rate and a 4.5% unemployment rate, Dawson reports.

    "[T]he 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," Keeney said.

    Williams also noted that the local school system and its students have worked to encourage healthy habits.

    For example, Rhonda McCoy, the food service director for Cabell County schools, said the school system changed its menu to make healthy options appeal to students, and the schools now make 80% of students' meals 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 said.

    Further, high school students in the area started a wellness group that in 2017 was awarded a federal grant.

    According to Williams, the most notable change was that the city's unfavorable attention and new focus on promoting healthy habits sparked a shift among area residents, with individuals no longer putting the onus on others to address the Huntington's health problems and instead working to address the issues themselves. "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,'" he said. "Everybody has a role to play."

    How Huntington's obesity rate has fallen

    As a result of their efforts, a decade after being named the most obese city in America, Huntington has reduced its obesity rate to 32%. While that's still above the national average of 29.5%, it marks a 15-percentage-point decline over a little more than 10 years—and it's meant some big changes for Huntington's residents. Williams, for instance, has lost 60 pounds.

    "There's no one issue that we're facing, particularly as significant as obesity that is an issue by itself," Williams said, adding, "It's inextricably linked to every part of the community" (Dawson, Politico, 1/23; Nash, Huntington Herald-Dispatch, 11/25/18).

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