Chattanooga, Tenn.

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

For the 33,000 people living on the South and East sides of the city of Chattanooga, the numbers are easy enough to add up:

About 29 percent of residents fall below the federal poverty level. Thirty-five percent of adults don’t have a high school diploma. Some 15 percent of the population suffers from diabetes, 43 percent from high cholesterol. Obesity and overweight equal 71 percent of adults.

The total amounts to a daunting health challenge, which is exacerbated by crime and other conditions in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods here. Too few positives offset the negatives. In the South side, for example, the one playground actually in the neighborhood is located between two industrial areas.

The equation may soon begin to change, however. Step ONE, a program run by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, works to improve nutrition and increase physical activity. With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the program is pulling together public and private partners at the city, county, and state levels to focus intensely on helping residents improve the South and East sides.

“There’s so much great motivation in this town right now, it amazes me,” project director John Bilderback said. “And we’re doing our best to create the system for change.”

The new initiative is called Grow Healthy Together Chattanooga (GHTC), and its goal is to reduce and prevent childhood obesity by increasing access to healthy fruits and vegetables; expanding options for physical activity in area parks and recreation facilities; and making streets and other infrastructure safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.

It will capitalize on the work done by two key local groups. The South side’s Alton Park Development Corp. tackles environmental injustices while building capacity for sustainable community change. The Eastside Task Force has coordinated eight neighborhood associations to address crime, teen pregnancy and health disparities in its part of town.

GHTC will add to their efforts by seeking policy changes to turn neglected city and county property into community gardens and getting farmers' markets and produce vendors to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for purchases. The initiative also will address the foods sold in convenience stores, where many residents do much of their shopping. Store owners will be urged to limit unhealthy items.

“We have to make sure that all pieces of the puzzle are beginning to take shape,” Bilderback said.

These changes won’t be easy, and GHTC faces logistical hurdles because the area is governed by the city and the county, meaning a double layer of rules and regulations. Other challenges include a social disconnect between some policy-makers and residents. Several government agencies are among the initiative’s partners, as is the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber will serve as liaison to the business community and assist in the development of a Healthy Living Fund to elicit matching contributions and help sustain momentum. The fund might even be used to award mini-grants to other local organizations.

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