Footbridges at Ritter Park, Huntington, WV

A Glimpse of Progress in America’s Once Fattest City

We’re not especially fond of rankings for obesity. They can spark sensationalism. Back in 2008, journalists had great fun with a CDC report that identified Huntington, WV, as “America’s fattest city.” Jamie Oliver swooped in to offer an enlightened diet to the city and its children. He sobbed for the cameras when the city didn’t gobble it up.

“They don’t understand me. They don’t know why I’m here,” he cried.

Ten Years Later: A Mixed Picture

The city might have rejected Oliver’s brand-building exercise, but ten years later, the community can point to some improvement. In 2008, Huntington had the highest prevalence of obesity among all the cities that CDC tracked. In addition, it had the highest proportion of people reporting only fair or poor health.

Ten years later, those rankings are better. Obesity prevalence (based on self-reported height and weight) is down from 44.5 to 32.6 percent. That puts it far from the worst in the nation.

However, the numbers for people reporting fair to poor health haven’t really changed. In the 2008 report, it was 24.3 percent. In the latest report, it’s 24.7. It’s no longer at the very bottom of the list, but only because CDC added two cities with worse numbers to the report – Corpus Christi and San Juan.

Self-reported numbers like this don’t offer a tidy picture. When you ask people how tall they are and how much they weigh, the numbers don’t match up with objective measurement. People think of themselves as slimmer and taller than they are. Social pressure plays a role. And when you step up the social pressure on a community, you might expect that pressure to creep into self reports.

Changes in the Community

But outside observers do see some real changes in Huntington. Brent Cunningham and Jane Black write in the Washington Post that these changes are coming from within the community. The Wild Ramp is making fresh, local, and healthful food more accessible, they note. It’s making money for local producers and it’s become a hub for the community.

The schools, where Oliver got a chilly reception, have embarked on their own program to bring in better nutrition. They’re spending more on fresh, local produce. They’ve gotten kids involved and they’ve rejected the Trump administration’s lower nutrition standards.

On top of all that, the community is promoting the pleasure of physical activity. Walks with the Mayor, running events, and miles of new trails are all part of a positive picture.

It’s hardly a made-for-TV makeover. But it’s real, incremental change that’s rooted in the community.

Click here for more from the Washington Post and here for more from the Herald-Dispatch. For the relevant CDC reports, click here and here.

Footbridges at Ritter Park in Huntington, WV; photograph © Wvfunnyman / Wikipedia

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April 15, 2019