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Faith leaders partner to fight childhood obesity

Chris Dorst
Dr. Janey Thornton, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, speaks Tuesday during an announcement of the Appalachian Regional Commission and Save the Children, which plan to support faith-based groups to combat childhood obesity.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many of the state's faith-based organizations are partnering with their communities to fight childhood obesity.

The Appalachian Regional Commission and Save the Children on Tuesday announced their support for an initiative that brings together multi-denominational faith leaders in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to work together with teachers to improve childhood nutrition and increase physical activity.

"Faith leaders are completely motivated," said Andrew Hysell, associate vice president of Save the Children. "They've got all these great things going on. The schools, I think, are really open for some community support, so let's just bring these people together and they'll make it happen."

Save the Children's "Campaign for Healthy Kids" partners with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, which aims to improve the health of children and combat childhood obesity.

Nationally, more than 1,000 faith and community members have signed up to take part in the Let's Move Faith and Community program, Hysell said.

One in three children in the United States is obese or overweight, he said.

"If this trend is left unabated, this will be the first time in modern times that our children will live shorter lives than us," he said. "This public health crisis demands response now."

Dr. Janey Thornton, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said health care for obesity-related illnesses costs the United States $50 billion annually.

"You think what a country could do with that amount of money," Thornton said.

Schools can't combat obesity on their own, Thornton said, adding that everyone has to work together.

Parents have to know that what they do, say and serve at home makes a difference in their child's health and ability to succeed, she said.

"It is not just what we're eating, but it is portion sizes of what were eating," she said.

Following the announcement, multi-denominational faith leaders from the state met for a roundtable discussion about the ways they can work with schools to improve children's nutrition and increase physical activity.

The initiative encourages faith leaders to take part in wellness councils that develop and implement community-based wellness policies, ensure that children attending church-run child-care programs eat healthy foods, and creates summer feeding sites that provide nutritious meals to at-risk youth.

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church said the first step to involve faith communities in fighting obesity is to educate church members.

"It's going to first take educating our faith communities that there's a real need that they can be a part of making a difference," Ball said. "In my experience, people want to be involved where they can make a difference.

"This offers a perfect opportunity for people who are passionate about the children in their communities, passionate about safety and health to really make relationship with the local schools in ways that best help the local schools and their families," she said.

The funding for outreach, organization and technical assistance for the initiative comes from a $72,000 ARC grant that's matched with $25,000 from Save the Children, Hysell said.

Other partners include the Faith United to End Childhood Obesity, the West Virginia Department of Education, the state Bureau for Public Health and the United Methodist Appalachian Ministry.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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