Seven years ago, an Associated Press article labeled the city of Huntington, West Virginia the unhealthiest in the nation.
The article relied on data from the Centers for Disease Control that said a large percentage of Huntington’s adults were obese. It said the area had high rates of heart disease and low rates of exercise. Since then, a lot of people and agencies in Huntington have been trying to improve the area’s health. But is it working?
The parking lot at the YMCA in Huntington is full of kids carrying kettleballs and hauling a heavy rope. They’re part of the Kids in Motion class. The classes were established in 2013 as one of many programs aimed at reducing obesity in the Huntington area. Reagan Hutchinson is in the class for 6-10 years olds.
"It motivates me because I wouldn’t do as good if I was by myself, because when I’m around other people I want to do better," Hutchinson said.
Residents of Huntington have been more focused on health since the AP story labeled the Huntington area as the unhealthiest in the country. The AP report drew international attention. In 2010, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver came to Huntington to launch a reality show aimed at improving health. He pushed for an overhaul of school lunch menus, and he created a community kitchen in downtown Huntington called Jamie’s Kitchen. The show has moved on, but Huntington Mayor Steve Williams saod the kitchen is still open – still teaching locals how to cook healthy meals.
"Jamie’s Kitchen is now Huntington’s Kitchen, we have more activities on weekends than we ever had 10-15 years ago," Williams said. "Yeah we have our festivals, we had our hotdog festival and we’ll have chili fest and those things are things that we celebrate, but in the midst of it there is a lot more activity."
Williams said since 2010 the number of annual 5k races in the area has gone from 19 to more than 40. And the city has moved toward promoting locally sourced food with new local markets like the Wild Ramp.
But obesity numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and from the Robert Wood Foundation don’t bear out major change. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in 2011 the percentage of obese adults in Cabell County, the county making up most of Huntington, was at 32%. In 2012 and 2013 the number rose to 33% and in 2014 the number rose another percentage point to 34%.
Dr. Michael Kilkenny is the Physicians Director for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. He says the numbers of those obese don’t jibe with the availability of quality food and opportunity for exercise. According to the Robert Wood Johnson numbers, 92% of the people in the county have access to exercise opportunities. But Kilkenny said good food and exercise opportunities alone can’t reduce obesity. It’s also about changing a mindset.
"From what I’ve seen in dealing with patients, it’s becoming all right to lose weight and that’s an encouraging sign and I get the sense that people are beginning to think it’s not only something they should do, but it’s all right for them to do," Kilkenny said.
Kilkenny and Mayor Williams both agree the way to change that mindset is through adolescents.
Liz Auvil is the Assistant Director for the Kids in Motion program at the Huntington YMCA.
"We’ve had a lot of families come in that have realized it’s not as easy as they thought to continue on that journey of weight loss, but they come in here and realize we make it fun and they really enjoy the atmosphere with everyone else and challenging each other," Auvil said.
Although the numbers don’t yet show it, many in the Huntington area think things are headed in a positive direction.