Academy fights high rates of childhood obesity in Black Belt

Dr. Lekan Ayanwale from Tuskegee University collaborates with the Obesity Working Group to tackle a tough problem

Every summer, the Sustainable Health and Fitness Academy (SHAFA), a project of the Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension Program, reaches deep into the heart of the region known as the Black Belt, capitalizing on the trust in Tuskegee University that has been built up with the region’s African-American population over generations. Obesity Working Group member Dr. Lekan Ayanwale, from Tuskegee University, leads SHAFA, which for the last 10 years has taught young people about the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise.

More than 30 percent of all Alabama teens are either overweight or obese, compared to 27.8 percent nationwide, according to an Alabama Department of Public Health report published in 2010. The highest rates of obesity in Alabama—for both adults and children—cluster in the counties of the Black Belt, which stretches across the mid-section of Alabama.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, slightly more than half of the population in Black Belt counties is African American. This is significant, because the rate of weight gain is higher in Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics than in non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Obesity Working Group members are interested in working with Dr. Ayanwale and SHAFA because few studies seem to have focused specifically on obesity among rural African-American populations, particularly in the Deep South. A frequent topic of conversation among Obesity Working Group members has been the question of what habits, practices, and factors are really contributing to obesity in this population, as opposed to populations in large urban centers on the East Coast or the upper Midwest, or Native Americans in North Dakota, or Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.

Each five-day camp accepts 15 campers each from two adjacent counties, all in the Black Belt. One camp, for example, serves Macon and Montgomery counties. Additional counties served are Bullock, Barbour, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Wilcox, Dallas, Perry, Sumter, and Marengo. SHAFA provides opportunities for youths to learn:

  • The MyPlate guide for food choices, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Fitness and health
  • Basic financial education
  • Culinary arts skills by using math, science and computers to prepare healthy meals for the whole family
  • Exercise, dancing, and field trips
  • Basic social etiquette
  • Life career choices

The children—usually fourth through seventh graders—have a light breakfast and a good lunch using selected samples of the healthy foods and snacks that SHAFA is teaching them about. Samples of healthy raw food items, assorted vegetables, fruits and whole grain foods are demonstrated by Dr. Adelia Bovell-Benjamin, but they are washed, prepared, and eaten by the students.

The program participants learn through practice, discussion, role-playing, planning, and execution of the designed safe programs. “Health literacy” on the values of “walking for life,” aerobic exercise, physical activities such as swimming and mental re-orientation on food consumption are critical to the goal of weight reduction and lowering risks associated with obesity, such as cancer, heart problems, and stroke. The campers’ weight gains and losses also are monitored through body-mass index measurements.

The Summer Health and Fitness Academy enjoys strong support from the Alabama Department of Public Health. That is because two-thirds of Alabama’s adults are either overweight or obese. Of even more concern is the fact that 14 of the state’s counties have obesity rates of more than 40 percent; two counties (both in the Black Belt) have obesity rates approaching 50 percent, according to The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. The State of Obesity is a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Black Belt’s Greene County, for example, has among the highest rates of female obesity in the entire United States at 58 percent. The rural county is more than 80 percent African American, with a median family income of just $24,604 in 2010. Poverty also shows a high correlation with obesity rates.

The State of Obesity details obesity rates among both adults and children in all 50 states, drawing upon the CDC’s Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance; the National Survey of Children’s Health, a project of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative; and the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

  • The CDC’s pediatric survey showed that in 2011, 14.1 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families were obese, with Alabama ranking 20th among states.
  • The children’s health survey showed that among 10- to 17-year olds the Alabama obesity rate in 2011 was 18.6 percent, with Alabama ranking 11th among all states.
  • By 2013 (again according to a CDC report), the obesity rate among Alabama high school students was 17.1 percent, ranking third among all states.

Collectively, these findings suggest that a large percentage of Alabama youths are at risk for eventually developing diabetes and concomitant cardiovascular problems or other obesity-related diseases. The Obesity Working Groups hopes to continue to work with SHAFA and Dr. Ayanwale to find solutions.