Size Matters – County encourages slimming down


By Leslee Kulba –

Many believe bullying is a problem in schools. In Buncombe County, in each of the last three years, about 3500 cases of child abuse or neglect were reported. For the entire state, the number is around 130,000. Also in the county, in 2010, half of all white pregnancies involved a teen mother. For Hispanics, the number is closer to 70; and for African-Americans, 80. According to the latest national survey results reported by the Department of Justice, 70.6 percent of teens claimed they had used alcohol in the last year. 34.3 percent admitted to smoking marijuana. But Tuesday, the Buncombe County Commissioners wanted to talk about obesity.

They received a report from Health Director Gibby Harris entitled “Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice.” Harris told how the project, begun as a report on obesity, had became obese itself due to mission creep. A large part of the expansion involved partnering with Mission Hospitals as they assembled data required by Obamacare. Tasked with making recommendations for a nontraditional role of government, Harris did well in seeking ways to passively encourage the public to eat better and become more active, rather than trying to, as she put it, “ban Big Gulps.”

Harris told how the county was excellent for collecting records of body mass index of school-aged children each year since 2005. Overall, the number of kindergarteners who are overweight or obese has hovered around the 30 percent mark, but the percentage of fifth graders being so labeled has been closer to 40. “All chronic disease is related to obesity,” Harris said.

She displayed maps intended to show correlations between heart disease and nearness to public recreation facilities and sidewalks and trails. Another attempted to show that areas of high incidences of heart disease were also areas without food access. Food access was defined first and foremost in terms of farmers’ markets but also grocery stores, WIC stores, and SNAP stores.

Harris stressed the importance of education in fighting obesity. Availing options was not enough. People needed to “understand” why the pleasure of eating a bag of Fritos each day was not as good as capturing that lean and mean, muscular figure. Federal grants from the Safe Routes to Schools programs had an instructional component because, as Harris explained, “You can put sidewalks down, but you need education, because you have to teach people why they should use them.” Educational programs were also important for delivering locally-grown, organic produce to consumers. Harris argued, “You can give somebody an eggplant, but if they don’t know what to do with it, [it would do no good.]” For that reason, the NC Cooperative Extension offers, among other programs, cooking classes.

In food deserts, where people are whatever the latest euphemism for poor is, the county is appointing community navigators. These people are typically insiders who identify candidates for building capacity in state and federal welfare programs. Since one of the best places to reach children is in the public schools, the county is working with educators and other members of school staff to help them get ripped, muscular bodies to help them teach by example.

Harris sang the praises of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council. Its mission is “to identify and propose innovative solutions to improve local food systems, spurring local economic development and making food systems environmentally sustainable and socially just.” Merriam-Webster says socialism is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” But it would be as politically incorrect to claim a correlation between the two as it is not to see the correlation between sidewalks and heart disease.

Already, the Food Policy Council has helped Asheville change its ordinances to allow more farmers’ markets within the city limits. They are also lobbying to convert more prime downtown real estate into farmland without impacting sprawl. Harris pointed out the visionaries striving to implement food justice policies have made some important discoveries. For example, the initial push to get more farmers’ markets has received some pushback by growers who do not wish to sell their goods in places nobody is going to go. Furthermore, with the addition of more and more markets, growers will eventually reach a point at which the cost of transporting a few goods here and a few there exceeds any profits from production.

In other matters, the commissioners approved amendment to the county’s personnel ordinance that adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. On the second reading, the measure passed on the 4-3 margin that required the second vote. Nobody commented, Tuesday, but during the public hearing, Commissioners Joe Belcher, David King, and Mike Fryar argued it was the responsibility of the commissioners to ensure the equal, nondiscriminatory treatment of all people; and not to be giving yoohoos out to special voting blocs.

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