Armed with data from a new study raising alarms about the health of children in the Mountain State, a West Virginia University Extension Service program has mobilized to help families who want to make healthy lifestyle changes.
The data, collected by the Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities Project, highlights problems of obesity and diabetes showing up even in toddlers and preschoolers.
CARDIAC, founded and housed in the WVU School of Medicine, discovered half of fifth graders in 17 West Virginia counties were overweight or obese in the 2018-2019 school year, and nearly one in 10 show warning signs of developing diabetes. Data also show 37 percent of kindergarten students and 43 percent of second grade students in those counties were obese or overweight. Three percent of kindergarteners and 6 percent of second graders showed early signs of pre-diabetes.
“Although the data reveals West Virginia’s ongoing struggle with obesity, the mission of the CARDIAC project is to encourage and empower children, their families and their communities to adopt a culture of health,” Eloise Elliott, co-director of the CARDIAC project and Ware Distinguished Professor at the WVU College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, said.
The study included kindergarten, second grade, and fifth grade students in Barbour, Boone, Braxton, Clay, Hardy, Lincoln, Marshall, Mason, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Morgan, Randolph, Roane, Wayne, Wetzel and Wyoming counties. Researchers measured each students’ height and weight to calculate body mass index. They also performed visual screenings of students’ necks for acanthosis nigricans, a condition that causes skin to darken and thicken, which can be an indicator of pre-diabetes. Parents were provided with students’ results in sealed envelopes.
Any child found to be overweight or obese in the CARDIAC study is eligible for the Health in a SNAP! program, which provides dietary counseling for families, up to $100 in fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking classes, and other resources—at no cost to families. Health in a SNAP! is a partnership of the WVU Extension Service’s Family Nutrition Program, WVU Medicine and the CARDIAC Project.
"Obviously, this is not an individual problem. There are changes that need to occur in our communities. We need to work on increasing access to healthy foods, and we need our kids to be more active. And that is what Health in a SNAP! is working to accomplish," said Kristin McCartney, Family Nutrition Program specialist and assistant professor.
Cathy Shaw, a registered clinical dietitian with the WVU Medicine Medical Weight Management Program, provides phone counseling for families in the Health in a SNAP! program. Shaw helps parents evaluate their child’s lifestyle and identify ways to improve their eating and exercise habits. She said getting healthy isn’t as difficult as many of her clients first suspect.
"It’s not rocket science. We want people to create small goals to eat more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, in the right amounts, and reduce intake of sweetened drinks. Sometimes it’s as simple as, we're having too much screen time. Let's get out and play," Shaw said. “All of these little things can help kids lead healthier lives as they grow. The challenge is finding something that will work with each individual family.”
Shaw also advises parents on how to make healthy choices at the grocery store, prepare those ingredients in ways the whole family will enjoy and involve kids in making dinner so they’re more likely to eat the food. She acknowledges finding healthy ingredients isn’t always easy in West Virginia, where the nearest grocery store or farmers market can be hours away.
Which is why Health in a SNAP! also offers eligible families up to $100 in farmers market vouchers or boxes of fresh produce, whichever option works best for their needs. "It's tailored to the needs of the family," McCartney said. Through the Family Nutrition Program, it also provides families with healthy recipes and cooking classes.
Health in a SNAP! is funded through the Eye Foundation of America and Izaak Mendelson. WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program’s work is supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
To enroll in Health in a SNAP!, contact Kristin McCartney at 304.356.1310 or email@example.com.