Obesity is a significant public health issue. Being obese can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a range of other chronic illnesses. According to The State of Obesity, 30 percent of North Carolinians are obese, and the rate continues to climb.
But there is good news. Communities are hard at work all over the state to increase access to healthy foods and physical activity.
And efforts in eastern North Carolina got a big boost recently, thanks to a new $1.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Annie Hardison-Moody and Dr. Lindsey Haynes-Maslow (pictured above, left to right), assistant professors and Extension specialists in the NC State Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences, are co-PIs on the project, “A Multi-Level Approach to Prevent Obesity: Extension and Engagement in Four North Carolina Counties.”
Edgecombe, Halifax, Lee and Northampton counties were selected by the CDC as project sites because they each have adult obesity rates of more than 40 percent. These counties also possess significant assets and resources, including strong community partnerships and local coalitions.
“Solving and addressing obesity cannot be a piecemeal approach,” says Haynes-Maslow. “We really have to reach people at every level of their day – where they work, where they play, where their home and family lives are. Our project uses a holistic approach to decrease obesity rates in areas of the state where the problem is most severe.”
The Power of Partnerships
Cooperative Extension has a long history of community-based programs designed to combat obesity throughout the state, such as SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed) and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). Along with Extension directors and staff in each county, the N.C. Division of Public Health, N.C. Department of Transportation, local health departments, parks and recreation agencies, schools and faith communities will play a big role in the new grant project. Also involved are faculty from the NC State Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management and Department of Sociology.
“Right now in North Carolina, we are primed for this work because we have longstanding partnerships that we can build on,” Hardison-Moody says. “So much great work is already happening in these counties, and now we get to work with these incredible folks and provide additional resources.”
Lee County Extension director Bill Stone says, “This grant will allow us to increase the number of citizens we are able to reach through nutrition education and healthy lifestyle initiatives. It will complement and expand current partnerships between Cooperative Extension and other local agencies to promote a healthier and more active community, increasing the quality of life for many Lee County residents.”
The grant will enable the creation of new staff positions – at least one in each of the four county Extension offices – to develop and deliver programs alongside Family and Consumer Sciences agents and EFNEP program assistants.
“We’re really excited to hire these county-level staff who will be able to assess what the communities are already doing and what they’re willing to do next to address obesity prevention,” Haynes-Maslow says. “The best way to tackle the problem is to get buy-in from the community.”
Catalyst for Change
On the nutrition front, the grant project aims to increase opportunities for family-based nutrition and cooking classes and grow the number of faith communities, schools, out-of-school programs and food retail establishments that implement healthy food standards.
Equally important, the co-PIs say, is creating and promoting safe places for physical activity.
To that end, they plan to implement “healthy community zones” in each county based around establishments like faith communities, schools or community centers.
“In each zone, we would draw a one-mile radius around that spot and make sure that the healthy choice is an easy choice,” Haynes-Maslow says.
“Faith communities and schools often have places where children and families can go to be active, but they’re underutilized, or not advertised as open, or maybe not officially open for shared use,” adds Hardison-Moody. “So we’ll work with them to open up those spaces and promote their availability to the community.”
The grant becomes official on Sept. 30, but Hardison-Moody, Haynes-Maslow and their state and local partners have already hit the ground running.
“It’s exciting that Extension will be the catalyst for change in these counties, working with local partners to lead conversations about healthy eating, access to healthy foods and access to places to be active,” says Hardison-Moody.
Haynes-Maslow agrees, saying, “I see this as a two-year opportunity to find out what is really going to help move the needle on obesity rates in these communities that are severely impacted. The bottom line is we want to improve the health of North Carolinians.”