Charleston, W.Va.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

Even in West Virginia’s largest city, in the shadow of the gold-domed state Capitol, the culture of Appalachia can run as deep as in a rural hollow of coal-mining country. When it comes to eating and sitting, that’s not necessarily for the best, as evidenced by three low-income Charleston neighborhoods whose residents suffer from pronounced obesity and poor health.

The West Side, East End and Kanawha City are the epicenter of KEYS 4 HealthyKids (K4HK), an initiative that is ready to confront both fat-laden diets and sedentary living among residents. Culture is hardly the only factor to address, of course. None of the neighborhoods has enough stores selling affordable healthy foods or safe parks and places for children to be active. Sidewalks are non-existent in many areas or are aging and in need of repair.

The poverty of the area—in one elementary school, 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—only piles on the problems.

At the same time, all three communities have strong neighborhood associations and recent urban renewal efforts involving improving housing and community amenities. Led by the CAMC Health Education and Research Institute, Inc., K4HK aims to capitalize on these positives to start changing the negatives.

It will focus in particular on increasing bicycle and pedestrian access to local landmarks like churches and schools. Some efforts to do so are already under way; two schools have received Safe Routes to School funding to support their efforts to help students walk and bike to class.

K4HK also wants to make it easier for the population, which is 80 percent White and 15 percent African-American, to eat nutritious foods. The Capitol Market in the East End offers residents fresh, local produce, and the goal will be to expand such access through more farmers' markets and revitalized community gardens in the West Side and Kanawha City.

“The East End has no grocery stores, and the West Side has only one,” noted project director Jamie Jeffrey. “This leaves corner stores and retail pharmacies, so one of the things we want to do is make sure these stores have more healthy options available.”

The initiative, with funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, is supported by the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement and such partners as health care providers, non-profit organizations and local and regional agencies. The West Virginia Council of Churches will play a major role in engaging the neighborhoods since it has important connections to congregations that already serve as local hubs—running food pantries, soup kitchens and recreational programs.

Five years ago, the Legislature made prevention of childhood obesity a priority with a law strengthening physical education and reducing the sale of soft drinks in schools. But K4HK will concentrate on the families in the Legislature’s own back yard. And Jeffrey knows that building community participation, especially among those families, will be crucial.

“People are so used to seeing programs come and go,” she said. “But the changes we’re seeking will be permanent. Once people see that and see the benefit, it will keep the movement going.”

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