Greenville, S.C.

    • January 11, 2010

As its name suggests, Greenville County enjoys a gentle, verdant landscape nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains. The county boasts nearly 2,000 acres of parks, 10 community centers, sports leagues and an open-air farmers' market. The YMCA of Greenville, Greenville Hospital System and Furman University run a comprehensive healthy living program aimed at preventing obesity. Yet more than 40 percent of children in the county are overweight or obese, with African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately affected.

With so many resources and so much effort, why is this community of 438,000 people still struggling with such an urgent health issue?

That question is what Activate Greenville, a partnership anchored by the YMCA, seeks to answer and then address. The partnership will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities in three low-income communities whose demographics make them especially vulnerable to obesity. Activate Greenville will focus on school-related initiatives, including Safe Routes to School and a healthy snack program, and on neighborhood-based initiatives such as trails and green spaces for physical activity.

“The three communities we have chosen to work with are all quite different but face many of the same challenges,” said Activate Greenville director Eleanor Dunlap. “In some cases it is an access issue; they do not have access to healthy foods. In other cases, it is a knowledge issue; they do not know where to go to be active or that parks and recreation opportunities are so close by. And in most cases it is a safety issue, in terms of infrastructure like bike lanes, but also in terms of crime in the neighborhoods.”

People who live in these communities have clear ideas of changes that can support good health. In Berea, whose predominantly White population of 14,000 includes the largest Latino community, initial conversations with residents point to a community garden to provide fruit, vegetables and herbs. In collaboration with a culinary school at a nearby college, residents would then learn ways to prepare and serve what they reap.

Some of the 2,100 residents of Nicholtown, which was founded by African-Americans in the early 1900s, also want to develop a community garden, one where seniors would teach children how to grow and prepare produce for nutritious meals.

In Sterling, population 900, residents talk of bringing back the Huddle soda shop, once a popular teen hangout, and transforming it into a corner store with healthy eating options. The predominantly African-American community envisions building a trail connecting the Huddle to a local community center under renovation.

Advocacy and policy development will drive the overall plan. And though the Activate Greenville partnership involves the YMCA, university and hospital system, a regional health care foundation and agencies from both the county and city of Greenville, community advisory boards and youth advisory boards will be created in Berea, Nicholtown and Sterling to ensure residents are involved throughout the initiative.

“Sustainable change has to come from within the communities and neighborhoods, rather than the outside, Dunlap said. “We will do this one neighborhood at a time, creating a movement.”

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