The City with Soul, as Jackson is known, is steeped in a rich heritage of food and southern hospitality. Nightclubs and small juke joints play an intoxicating mix of jazz, blues, rock, rap and hip hop. The winters are mild, the summers hot and humid, and here along the slow-moving Pearl River, it all makes for a distinct sense of place in Mississippi’s biggest city.
Yet Jackson, along with the rest of the state, also has become identified by skyrocketing rates of obesity. Mississippi has the highest prevalence of childhood obesity in the nation, and recent estimates suggest that half of all girls in Jackson and four out of every 10 boys are obese or overweight. As in other communities, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating contribute to Jackson’s problems, but many of its families face particularly tough challenges when it comes to healthy living.
Of Jackson’s 176,000 residents—70 percent of whom are African-American—about one in four lives in poverty in largely underserved neighborhoods marked by fast-food outlets, convenience marts and liquor stores. There are fewer supermarkets stocking affordable fresh foods. Even the city’s more middle-class neighborhoods lack adequate sidewalks, making walking or biking unsafe. Crime is another serious problem; the city ranks as the 15th most violent in the nation, surpassing both Los Angeles and Baltimore counties.
But Jackson’s leaders have a plan to reverse its obesity epidemic. Together they’re creating a new culture that will foster regular physical activity and healthy eating. The Jump Start Jackson Project(JSJ) is a key part of this policy-focused strategy. Led by My Brother’s Keeper, Inc., and supported by strong local partners, JSJ will target disadvantaged African-American children and adolescents.
“Our hope is to get kids and parents more invested in their health and more engaged in their community,” project director Mark Colomb said.
The program will seek to attract fresh-food grocers to the city and offer incentives for farmers’ markets to help the most vulnerable families have greater access to produce and other local healthy fare. JSJ will advance Safe Routes to School programs throughout the city and partner with Jackson public schools to increase the number of kids who walk or bike to school. A new master plan for improving the safety and facilities of public parks also is under way.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, it’s a significant grassroots effort that will involve local businesses and neighborhood watch associations. Colomb believes it could prove to be the tipping point.
Residents recognize that the health and future of Jackson is in jeopardy, he said. “This project will impact the entire community one child at a time and help us inspire a new culture of health for years to come.”