The Dan River Region of Virginia has the dubious distinction of being one of the most health-deficient areas of the United States.

The area that stretches along the border of North Carolina from Patrick to Halifax counties has an almost 50 percent higher rate of diabetes than the rest of the country, a 5 percent higher rate of obesity, and 17 percent of the area’s residents live below the federal poverty line. One in four do not have health insurance.

Fortunately, researchers at Virginia Tech are working on a solution to improve the health of residents of the Dan River area by developing a multi-pronged program that aims to incorporate not just nutrition education, but exercise initiatives and community gardens — a multifaceted approach that could be used as a model to battle the obesity epidemic in similar communities across America.


Associate Professor Jamie Zoellner and Assistant Professor Jennie Hill, both in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are helping lead the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community, a community-academic partnership between Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and more than 50 local organizations including churches, government offices, grassroots organizations, and health professionals.

The mission of the group is to foster community partnerships to combat obesity in the Dan River Region by educating the community about healthy lifestyle initiatives.

The organization is working toward a solution to curb rampant obesity through a process known as community-based participatory research, which strives to engage local stakeholders in all aspects of the research process.

“We know there is no one thing that is going to solve the obesity epidemic, so we are using several strategies to approach this issue,” said Hill, who along with Zoellner is a member of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center. “We are engaging the entire community to address this problem from the ground up.”

Bryan E. Price, chairman of the organization and health and wellness program director for Danville Parks and Recreation, said members of the community jumped at the chance to improve their lives.

“In this program, locals are invested in working to break the cycle of unhealthy habits,” he said. “Healthier people are happier people, and in the long run, we feel that the improved health status will lead to an overall more successful Dan River Region.”

In the early stages of partnership, the community identified key areas it wanted to work in to address obesity: nutrition through community gardens, a physical activity program, and the built environment.

Many parts of the Dan River Region are classified as “food deserts,” where people have limited access or no access at all to healthy, affordable foods. Outside the city limits of Danville in Pittsylvania County, there is only one grocery store within 1,110-square miles. That means that people are forced to shop at local, small convenience stores where choices are limited.

Clarice Waters of Clifton, Va,. a doctoral student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, along with other student research assistants, fanned out across the county to do an assessment of the more than 400 food outlets in the region to measure the accessibility of healthy food.

The available food was rated on a scale of zero to 30, with zero representing unhealthy foods and 30 meaning there were a cornucopia of good options.  

“The entire region had an average of six,” said Hill. “It goes to show that even if people wanted to eat healthy, they don’t have access to healthy food options.”

This summer, expanding on a pilot project from last year, a gardening program targeting youth is being offered at six sites serving low-income youth.

“It makes a difference in their lives because the successes and failures of their garden are based on the hard work, attitudes, time, and effort that they put in,” said Tadashi Totten, a 4-H and youth development Extension agent.

But instead of just planting gardens and assuming that they are inherently positive factors within the community, the researchers are measuring how much food comes out of them in order to ascertain how much of an impact the gardens will have on the area residents.

After every harvest, the children are given lessons on the nutritional value of the vegetables they grew.

“I think it’s important to teach them when they are young so they know the benefits of being healthy so when they are older, they can teach it to their children, too.” said Felicia Reese of Chester, Va., a human nutrition, foods, and exercise graduate student.

The partnership has had several sources of funding in recent years. The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth has provided a consistent source of monies of about $140,000 over three years. The project recently received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and test a childhood obesity treatment program. It also got a $45,000 start-up grant from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for the community garden initiative. The Danville Regional Foundation-Make it Happen!, the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and the Virginia Tech Fralin Life Science Institute have also supported the project.

Wen You, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics, is also working on the project by providing statistical and econometric consulting as well as health economics expertise.

So far, the program has had tremendous success, which in the long run might not just help the Dan River Region, but the U.S. as a whole.

“America is in the midst of an obesity crisis and we hope that this model of academic partners such as Virginia Tech teaming up with local groups can be used to find solutions to solve the obesity epidemic around the U.S.,” Zoellner said.



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