Teaming up with the community to fight obesity

The Dan River region of Virginia is one of the most health-disparate regions of the United States. The area that stretches from Patrick to Halifax counties has a diabetes rate that is almost 50 percent higher than the rest of the country and a 5 percent higher rate of obesity; 17 percent of the area’s residents live below the federal poverty level. One in four do not have health insurance.

Fortunately, researchers in Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise are working on a solution to improve the health of the region.

dan-river-bigAssociate Professor Jamie Zoellner and Assistant Professor Jennie Hill are developing a program that aims to improve the health of those living in the Dan River area and could one day serve as a model to battle the obesity epidemic in similar communities across America.

Zoellner and Hill are helping to lead the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community, a community-academic partnership among Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and more than 50 local organizations, including churches, government offices, grassroots organizations, and health professionals.

The group’s mission is to foster community partnerships to combat obesity in the Dan River region through healthy lifestyle initiatives, beginning with community-based participatory research — a process that engages local stakeholders in all aspects of the research process.

“We know there is no one thing that is going to solve the obesity epidemic, so we are using several strategies to approach this issue,” said Hill. “We are engaging the entire community to address this problem from the ground up.”

Bryan E. Price, chairman of the organization and health and wellness program director for Danville Parks and Recreation, said community members jumped at the chance to improve their lives.

“In this program, locals are invested in working to break the cycle of unhealthy habits,” he said. “Healthier people are happier people, and in the long run, we feel that the improved health status will lead to an overall more successful Dan River region.”

In the early stages of partnership, the community identified key areas it wanted to work on to address obesity: nutrition through community gardens, a physical activity program, and the region’s infrastructure.

Partners in the project say it is affecting the lives of participants.

“It makes a difference in their lives because the successes and failures of their gardens are based on the hard work, attitudes, time, and effort that they put in,” said Tadashi Totten, a 4-H youth development agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension.

So far, the program has had tremendous success with six community gardens planted, dozens of community groups participating, and a massive amount of data on the area that has never existed. In the long run, it might not help only the Dan River region; it could affect the nation if the model is expanded to other locations.

“America is in the midst of an obesity crisis, and we hope this model of academic partners such as Virginia Tech teaming up with local groups can be used to find solutions to solve the obesity epidemic around the U.S.,” Zoellner said.

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