Image 1. ‘Be my village’: Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy intertwined local statistics with personal stories about obesity in Buncombe County at the recent Weight of the Nation event at UNCA. A study last year found that almost 63 percent of county residents are overweight.
Image 2. Sharing problems to find solutions: YMCA Healthy Living Coordinator Annie Huey writes down obstacles to making healthy choices. Photos by Caitlin Byrd
When it comes to obesity, Buncombe County faces a hefty problem that needs a generous serving of creative, community-oriented solutions.
“It's not just a policy decision — it's a lifestyle decision,” Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy told Xpress before delivering the keynote address at “The Weight of the Nation,” a Jan. 15 gathering at UNCA organized by assorted groups and entities from across the region. Nearly 250 people attended the event, billed as a “community conversation on obesity solutions.”
According to the WNC Healthy Impact survey, a 2012 study completed by local health departments, hospitals and partners in 16 Western North Carolina counties, almost 63 percent of county residents are considered overweight, having a body mass index greater than 25. Of that group, 27.5 percent are obese.
Weaving those statistics into her speech, Bellamy urged the community to find solutions not only to improve overall health, but to improve healthy outcomes for her “little princess” — her daughter, Imani, who’s almost 8.
“Why I'm here is so that you can encourage me to have a healthy daughter,” she said. “I'm here to encourage you to be my village to help me with my daughter.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South has the highest prevalence of obesity (29.5 percent of residents) of any region in the country. But obesity isn’t just a Southern issue, noted David Gardner, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Health & Wellness.
“We all share that common challenge,” he said. “What we've come here to do tonight is to celebrate the possibilities of addressing the challenge with some usable and meaningful solutions, both from an individual point of view and collectively as a community.”
To get people to share individual experiences while thinking about the bigger picture, four easels were set up where they could write about the challenges they face when making healthy choices in different kinds of public spaces: places where people work, learn, pray or play.
Attendees also viewed a clip from the documentary The Weight of the Nation showing how Nashville, Tenn., responded to its obesity epidemic. But Bryan Messing, the Woodfin YMCA’s community director, issued the Asheville group its own challenge: Adopt the "5-2-1 Almost None!" approach. The idea is that individuals should eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, spend no more than two hours in front of a TV or computer, get at least one hour of physical activity or play daily, and consume almost no sugary drinks.
"I'm confident that all of us will help move the healthy-living needle in our community by implementing the ‘5-2-1 Almost None!’ program,” noted Messing. The problem, he continued, “cannot be solved individually. Let's come together as a neighborhood, as a city and as a region and make this a priority.”
After that, the audience moved into breakout sessions facilitated by local high-school students from Youth Empowered Solutions and other community members. Each session addressed the specific challenges faced in one of five different areas: health care, individuals and families, faith communities, schools and workplaces. Participants could choose three to attend.
For event organizers, this multilayered approach was intentional, said Virginia Marziaka, the YMCA’s healthy living director.
"We want to pull everyone together and use everyone's resources in one combined effort," she explained. "Moving forward, this will have the impact of lighting the way."
In one session, health professionals discussed the importance of motivational interviewing rather than simply showing patients a BMI chart. “This really gives the patient ownership and gets them invested in their health,” one participant noted.
And though no overall solution to ending obesity in Buncombe County and Western North Carolina emerged, Messing said that’s not surprising, given the scope of the undertaking.
"Initially, we can become overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the problem, which is one reason why it's still a problem for our community," he pointed out. "Challenges like these call for a collective effort."
Bellamy, however, says she remains optimistic that the community can come together — and become healthier.
“It’s important that we have a balanced life for our children,” she stressed. “It’s important that you see that not as someone else’s [responsibility] but ours as a community, because it takes a whole village to raise a child.”
Send your health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 140.