The beauty of gentle pine-dotted hills masks an acute impoverishment through the southern midsection of North Carolina. In Moore and Montgomery counties, for example, one out of every five children ages 5 to 17 lives below the federal poverty level. An equal number also lives close to that edge.
For all too many young people here, their health reflects these rates. A project called Healthy Kids in the Carolinas will work in five communities in the largely rural region where overweight and obesity among elementary school students exceeds 50 percent at times.
The project is being led by FirstHealth of the Carolinas, a comprehensive health care system. The organization and its partners, namely the towns of Southern Pines, Aberdeen, Robbins, Mt. Gilead and Candor, aim to remove some of the barriers keeping these children from being active and eating right.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the partnership initially will identify problems in the built environment that affect weight gain, from a rural area’s lack of infrastructure and recreational facilities to the food-shopping limitations when a small town has only a convenience store with processed and packaged foods.
Then the problems will be tackled. In the five communities, GIS (geographic information system) mapping and analysis will be used to craft land use plans that promote sidewalk and trail development. It’s all about “comprehensive connectivity,” and such paths, if they link home to school, are an important first step in getting children to be more active on a daily basis, explained project director Melissa Watford.
“GIS mapping and other tools will show us where we need sidewalks and trails so that kids can walk safely to school,” Watford said.
The project also will build on existing momentum and obesity prevention in the region, such as efforts to create more greenways and trails and to improve access to healthy food through farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture and community gardens that sell locally grown produce.
In addition, FirstHealth will continue to help develop community and school-based gardens that can serve as learning laboratories. In these gardens, children are planting and harvesting fresh produce under the tutelage of master gardeners. Some of the food grown is served in after-school programs.
No question, distance, limited financial resources and a small pool of volunteers to tap are among the hurdles facing the project. The communities’ combined population numbers under 20,000. About 80 percent of residents are White, 17 percent are African American, and 10 percent are Latino.
But the partnership, which also includes the groups Sustainable Sandhills and Communities In Schools, doesn’t view the region’s high rate of obesity as an insurmountable obstacle. Rather, it’s a challenge that it has an obligation to meet.
“I think the health of our children is our future,” Watford said adding: “We have strong partnerships here that will help us meet that challenge.”