‘Try This Conference’ unites groups against W.Va. obesity epidemic

The problem wasn't that they weren't trying — there are organizations all across the state to combat West Virginia's obesity epidemic and the myriad health issues surrounding it. It was that, try as they might, many small local organizations don't have the support or the resources to expand their initiatives and keep them afloat. That is why, more than a year ago, they decided to try something new.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, said local organizations often just need a little guidance.

“ ‘If you just gave us something to do,’ ” was a refrain Smith said he hears all the time. “ ‘We’ve got 15 people right here, we’re having this conversation. If there was something we could do right here in our town and our county, we’d do it, but we’re not exactly sure how to get started.’ ”

The “Try This Conference,” which will bring together 350 people from agencies across the state to explore ideas to combat some of West Virginia’s biggest health concerns, will be held June 6-7 at West Virginia Wesleyan College, in Buckhannon.

The conference is the result of more than a year of planning, and has a slew of sponsors, including the Benedum Foundation, the state’s Office of Child Nutrition, Change the Future West Virginia, Unicare, the West Virginia Farmers’ Market Association and more than a dozen others. Wesleyan donated its space for the conference, and more than 95 presenters will travel to present workshops — all for free.

“The West Virginia Presbytery has basically put a staff person in charge of working registration for the conference,” Smith said. “That is an enormous gift, but it’s what’s happening all over the place; these groups are saying, ‘Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.’ ”

The statistics behind the state’s health crisis are jarring: one in five 11-year-olds has high blood pressure, and one in four is obese. One of every three adults in the state is obese, and that number is expected to jump to two in three if the state continues on its current trajectory, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

West Virginia spends seven out of 10 of its health-care dollars treating obesity-related illness, Smith said.

Reporter Kate Long spent more than a year documenting obesity issues and potential community solutions for “The Shape We’re In,” a series run in the Gazette-Mail. She said that while “The Shape We’re In” provided fodder for Try This, the initiative came at the right time and from a growing concern for children’s health across the state.

“This is a public health emergency,” Long said. “If we had even two-dozen people dying of H1N1 flu, people would be recognizing. With this, there are thousands of people dying every year of diabetes alone. I think people are really starting to recognize that it’s time to create a movement, and that West Virginia doesn’t have to be at the top of every worst list.”

Rick Goff, director of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, said the state’s poor health ratings are at odds with numerous efforts to combat the problem from all sides. His agency has piloted the Community Eligibility Program in West Virginia, a USDA program that allows the state to designate entire communities eligible for free or reduced lunch in their schools, and is implementing farm-to-school programs across the state. 

The Office of Child Nutrition is implementing the Feed to Achieve Act, a law passed in 2013 which aims to increase participation in school breakfast programs and improve the quality of school meals. Goff said he views the Try This Conference as an opportunity to bring together stakeholders and help them work toward a unified goal.

“In the past, what we’ve seen is a sort of solo approach, and I think what we’re seeing now is a sort of groundswell to bring different agencies, offices and groups together to have more of a concerted, cohesive approach to tackling those concerns here,” Goff said.

The Try This Conference was preceded by its website, www.trythiswv.com, which was designed as a resource for communities that needed a starting point to launch an initiative. The website has links to information on funding, fitness, healthy eating and outreach, and offers advice on everything from creating a system for local food distribution to developing active summer programs. 

Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, director of KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, said she sees all the programs but that there are a couple reasons why she isn’t seeing results.

“Why aren’t we moving the needle? If all of this is going on, why not? For one, a lot of them are programmatic — you have an awesome program, but it only runs for two months, and the environment doesn’t support the continuation of that program . . . . In West Virginia, we just can’t seem to sustain those efforts,” Jeffrey said. “So many people work in silos, and we have to break them down and bring everyone together to work together to build those solutions and partnerships where everyone brings their particular expertise.”

The response to the conference has been overwhelming. Initially planned as an opportunity for dialogue, benefactors to the conference have raised more than $50,000 to be distributed to local agencies in the form of mini-grants of up to $3,000 each. Additionally the West Virginia Community Development HUB is considering a statewide physical-activity network as a result of the Try This efforts.

In 2009, the HUB began helping the WV Food and Farm Coalition, which will become independent this year. According to Director Kent Spellman, Food and Farm was successful because of the collaborative effort to build and sustain it — something he sees as integral to the future success of Try This and other initiatives.

“The Try This Conference reflects a remarkable collaborative approach to improving the well-being of our citizens and our community,” he said. “If we all set aside our little turf issues and started to work more effectively together, there’s really no limit to what we can accomplish here in West Virginia.” 

The conference will feature sessions on topics ranging from how to serve healthy food on a food-stamp budget to planning and creating walking trails. For more information on Try This or to read stories from “The Shape We’re In,” visit www.trythiswv.com.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189. 

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