CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Church, state and federal groups are banding together with community partners to tackle childhood obesity in West Virginia.
The Appalachian Regional Commission on Tuesday announced a partnership with Save the Children's Campaign for Healthy Kids to help churches, schools and other groups in West Virginia start community-based policies and increase nutritious meals for at-risk youth during the summer. They plan to get help from food pantries and church-run childcare programs.
In the 2011-12 school year, 27.8 percent of fifth-graders screened by West Virginia University's CARDIAC program were obese, compared to 28.9 percent in the 2010-11 school year. The kindergarten obesity rate declined from 17.5 percent to 13.6 percent, the lowest rate in nine years. However, the second-grade obesity rate rose a point to 24.5 percent.
Churches and their leaders "are the antidotes to this problem," Campaign for Healthy Kids director Andrew Hysell said. "They care about the welfare of our children and they have the spirit to fix it. They are moral guideposts. They have great relationships in their local communities and they know what will work. Because the last thing we want is a one-size-fits-all approach.
"What we want to do today is roll up our sleeves and say how can we increase the number of these great things that are happening across the state?"
Rick Goff, executive director of the state Office of Child Nutrition, said the state currently reimburses 63 faith-based sites that feed healthy meals to children, while 19 church-based programs provide them meals during the summer.
"There's a lot of room for growth," he said. "Those are two ways we can help."
Janey Thornton, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said childhood obesity numbers can't be reduced overnight. She and other speakers discussed teaching families about proper diets and trying healthier foods they may not be familiar with, such as zucchini and eggplant.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32.4 percent of West Virginia adults are obese.
"We've got to help parents understand that what they do, say and serve at home makes a huge difference on their child's health and even on their child's ability to succeed later in life," she said. "It is not just what we're eating, but it is portion sizes of what we're eating. At home, it's OK to say no to a child when they're throwing a fit for a candy bar instead of the broccoli. It's not child abuse."
Goff has said schools statewide improved nutrition during the 2011-12 school year. Processed food served in schools declined and cooks in 26 counties were trained to cook from scratch.
The partnership announced Tuesday is part of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to instill healthy habits in the nation's youngest generation. Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Earl F. Gohl said funding for the West Virginia project includes a $72,000 grant from the ARC.
In January 2012, a statewide coalition unveiled a program to push West Virginia residents to live more active lifestyles. The plan seeks to build partnerships between schools, communities and park systems.