Union County coalition encourages healthy eating and active living
By Kelsey Aylor
Union County News
Across the nation, the health sector is seeing an alarming rise in rates of childhood obesity and, unfortunately, the situation in Union County is no better. The 2015 BMI report conducted by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has found that anywhere from over a third to close to half of elementary school students in Union are either overweight or obese.
With these figures in mind, a group of public health educators teamed up with concerned community members to form a local coalition of East Smart Move More. On the state level, Eat Smart Move More is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that receives funding from outside parties, including the BlueCross BlueShield of S.C. Foundation, to promote obesity prevention. Union County’s coalition, on the other hand, is solely volunteer-based.
Both Page Rogers and Kelsey Allen are community health educators with DHEC. Beginning in spring of 2015, they served together on a task force that assessed Union County’s health needs and concerns, including the aforementioned BMI report. After seeing the need in Union, they formed Eat Smart Move More Union.
“We saw the need and importance here and wanted to do something about it,” said Rogers. “As community health educators, we work to help implement strategies around healthy eating and active living. Thankfully, we had support right away from Frank Hart and we’ve been able to work with a facilitator to develop a strategic plan.”
Allen said the coalition’s members were given the opportunity to choose the direction it went in. Out of its initial goals and objectives, the ESMM Union coalition has set up its website and Facebook page and successfully established a Let’s Go Play program in conjunction with the library. She said this program promotes summer play, physical activity and summer reading while kids are out of school.
“With what we’ve done so far, it has helped tremendously with branding and letting the community know who we are and what we’re doing,” she said. “As we gain more recognition and support, we can move forward with other strategies in the works.”
These evolving projects include direct interactions with the school system. ESMM Union is working on setting up school gardens at the elementary schools and possibly connecting these to the one at UCHS.
They are also working on implementing a Healthy Eating Decisions program in school cafeterias. This program is based on research done by David and Sharyn Pittman at Wofford College, which shows that incentivizing healthier meal options causes children to select them more often.
“The system is fairly simple and it’s inexpensive. Even just letting the kids ring a bell every time they select the healthy option encourages them to make better, healthier choices,” she said.
Every month, the coalition meets to discuss its goals and implement plans to achieve them. As they grow, they will revisit their objectives and create new ones. Rogers said the group continues to look at the task force assessment to decide their next steps.
“We want everybody’s voice in deciding what we do. It’s their community and so it’s their consensus,” she said.
Based on the report, half of Union’s population rates the overall health in Union as fair, and a quarter rates it as poor. Less than one percent rates it as very good or excellent. The community also listed issues to tackle which include the perception of fewer opportunities for physical activity, a lack of education surrounding healthy cooking, lack of up to date technology, high rates of drug use and lack of support for positive change in the community.
“This is a complicated issue and it’s going to take everybody working together” said Rogers. “We need people from all different sectors coming together and working on this – and it will take time, but it is possible.”
She said the coalition has seen a very collaborative spirit in Union County, which has helped the coalition grow and affect change. She said they are continuing to reach out to new partners to join the coalition and participate in its discussions because collaboration is key.
Allen said the ultimate goal of both ESMM South Carolina and the Union coalition is to make the healthy choice the easy choice.
“We want to give Union County residents the best chance at a healthy life that we can,” she said. “It starts with kids and with childhood obesity prevention because that’s a nationwide trend, but we hope to reduce some of the barriers that are preventing different people from even having the opportunity to be healthy.”
The coalition meets the second Thursday of every month at 8:30 a.m. at the S.C. Works Upstate – Union Office, with the next meeting on July 14. Anyone interested in joining the coalition is welcomed to attend. For more information on the coalition or to contact its members, visit http://eatsmartmovemoresc.org/unioncounty/.