Health & Food Justice
West Virginia is a proud state boasting a strong heritage of a pioneer-style living, some of the nation’s most beautiful farmland and some of its most popular areas for outdoor roaming. Unfortunately West Virginia is now also one of the nation’s unhealthiest places. High rates of poverty, geographic isolation, and a legacy of economic upheaval all contribute to the struggle of West Virginians to stay healthy. Statewide health indicators rival those of many impoverished inner-city areas in other parts of the country.
· 36% of West Virginian children and teens are overweight or obese. This places our state at a rank of second-highest in the nation for child obesity.
· 31.2% of West Virginia adults are obese. We rank third-highest in the nation for adult obesity.
· In 2008, the Center for Disease Control released a study (link) showing that Huntington, West Virginia ranked 3rd nationwide for obesity rates, 1st for diabetes and tooth loss, and 5th for heart disease when compared to 177 other metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. Charleston, WV ranked 1st for heart disease in the same comparison.
· The CDC survey further showed that in Huntington, based on Body Mass (BMI), over 70 percent individuals are overweight or obese.
· Based on these findings, the Associated Press called Huntington the fattest, most unhealthy city in the United States. This bold pronouncement embarrassed and saddened many West Virginians, but also drew needed attention to the severity of the health problems in our urban as well as rural communities.
These facts lead us to ask ourselves some tough questions. How did we get this unhealthy? What challenges and barriers in our food system are preventing us from eating the kinds of foods that don’t fatten us, give us heart disease, or ruin our teeth? And how can we turn our pressing human need for better, healthier food into an economic opportunity for our most vulnerable communities to lift themselves out of poverty?
The reasons for our problems are complex. Simply getting to grocery stores and food banks can be a challenge in such a rural and rugged territory, where the state’s population of just 1.8 million people lives spread across an area of 24,230 square miles. “Food deserts,” or areas where no stores sell fresh food, are prevalent and stretch for many square miles. In some towns, residents must drive for as long as 40 minutes simply to buy an uncooked fruit or vegetable. Fast food restaurants, however, plentifully dot the landscape -- along with other outlets for foods that are heavily processed, high in fats and sugars, and low in nutritional value.
Poverty presents a further challenge for families struggling to feed themselves, in a state where poverty rates are more than 150% of the national average. In 2009, 305,960 West Virginia residents (17% of the state’s population) were projected by the USDA to receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, formerly called Food Stamps. In 2008, 52.5% of all West Virginia school children in kindergarten through grade 12 qualified for free and reduced-price school meals. Coordinators of summer programs such as Energy Express report that many participating kids would not eat during the day if they did not attend the programs, because food is not readily available at home.
Our state’s unique environment demands us to come up with a special set of solutions that address both access and poverty, both rural and urban spaces, both production and consumption in the food system. It challenges us to think differently about our health and to build robust, exciting community projects that reconnect individuals with healthy food, with the energizing process of food production, and with each other. It also challenges us to look to our mountain heritage, a heritage of homesteading, self-sufficiency, small-scale agriculture and do-it-yourself survival, that has kept West Virginians strong for many generations.
Click here for more research and data on hunger, poverty, and local foods.