West Anniston Foundation program takes on obesity, diabetes

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 2, 2006

Southerners have a reputation of liking to eat a lot – especially fried, fatty foods. That tendency could be putting their lives at risk.

As the nation continues its battle with obesity – more than 65 percent of adults are classified as overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the West Anniston Foundation is attempting to fight the problem and related diseases, such as diabetes, in Calhoun County.

The foundation received a $600,000, three-year grant from the federal Office of Minority Health, the only grant of its kind in Alabama.

Now nearing completion of its second year the For Your Life! grant program features health screenings and surveys, programs in Anniston’s public schools, and training to help church leaders educate their congregations.

The program’s focus is on Anniston’s minority population because that group has the most risk factors for obesity and diabetes, said Charity Richey-Bentley, West Anniston Foundation’s executive director.

“Our target population is the African-American population because the two health outcomes that we are trying to impact are disproportionately in the African-American community,” Richey-Bentley said.

Glenda Elston, the grant’s program manager, said she doesn’t think there are any “concrete answers” as to why blacks are disproportionately affected, but diet and lifestyle play a part. Southerners in general also are more at risk than Northerners.

“(African-Americans) have always been the people who did the manual labor … and when you get home you want to sit down and rest,” Elston said. “That has changed, everyone sits in front of computers now. When we get home we need to go walking, play tennis.”

“The whole (American) population is being plagued more,” she added.

Under the umbrella of the For Your Life! grant, the West Anniston Foundation has created components to tackle the problems on multiple fronts. One of the main elements has been a series of programs designed to teach Anniston school children about the importance of healthy eating and having an active lifestyle.

Anniston students get only the minimum amount of physical education required by the state, Richey-Bentley said.

“So much focus is on academics, academics, academics, we must improve test scores; and we agree with that, but if you’re not healthy you won’t improve test scores,” she said.

Elston said a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle has led to rising obesity rates for children.

“Children are more supervised, so they don’t get that exposure,” she said. “Video games and TV has been the babysitters in a lot of situations, which is detrimental to our health.”

Many youth sports programs have moved to suburban areas, more difficult for West Anniston children to reach.

Richey-Bentley said the programs have been well-received in the elementary schools. They will return in the fall and expand to the middle schools and high school, she said.

While the school programs have been in place for a while, July 22 marked the kick-off for another component of the program, called EDIT – Everyone Doing It Together – that is designed to encourage exercise in the entire community. The first event was a walk through downtown Anniston that attracted about 70 participants.

“Walking is economical, it doesn’t cost anything. and it’s easy … it’s something that anyone can do pretty much,” Elston said. “If you’ve got a friend to do it with you, it’s like a social hour.”

The turnout was not what the agency had hoped, but Joyphne Bolton-Caver, a health educator, said she is planning another walk for October, as well as a community health fair.

Although it is hard to quantify the effectiveness of the program at this point, Richey-Bentley said the response from the community has been positive. Elston said the diabetes screenings – held daily at the St. Michael’s Clinic, Family Services Center of Calhoun County and Concern for Children – have turned up a number of people with diabetes or high glucose levels.

“We have found so many people who are diabetic who did not know that they are diabetic,” she said. “That alone, to me, is worth the program.”

Part of the purpose of the grant is to collect the data that will help measure its impact, Richey-Bentley said. Currently, no data exists on obesity and diabetes in Calhoun County.

“It’s hard to say at the end of a two-year period that a program’s making a difference, because what we have to measure is … (what) we’re hearing back,” she said. “We’ve had extremely good reception.”

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