Michelle Parisi and Sarah Griffin

Michelle Parisi (left) and Sarah Griffin are leading a CDC-funded project to address health and nutrition in South Carolina counties where more than 40 percent of the adults suffer from obesity.
Image Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON – With 93.3 million adults tipping the scales as obese, it’s no secret that America has an obesity problem.

In the hardest-hit communities, more than four in 10 adults suffer from obesity. That’s not just a health problem; that’s a health crisis.

“Obesity recently surpassed tobacco use, high blood pressure and high cholesterol to become the leading cause of preventable life-years lost among Americans,” said Sarah Griffin, an associate professor in the public health sciences at Clemson University. “It can lead not only to heart and circulatory diseases, but also to other potentially fatal diseases like cancer. The estimated overall cost of obesity in the United States is $315.8 billion.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is enlisting the help of land-grant universities like Clemson in 15 states to combat this crisis.

The CDC High-Obesity Program provides grants for locally driven health and nutrition initiatives specifically for counties with a 40 percent or greater obesity rate.

“South Carolina has the 10th highest rate of obesity in the nation, and three counties – Hampton, Lee and Marion – have more than 40 percent adult obesity,” said Michelle Parisi, who leads the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service rural health and nutrition program. Parisi and Griffin will team up to conduct the five-year CDC initiative in the Palmetto State.

For the program’s first year, Clemson has received more than $836,000 to fund the effort, which will help the three counties increase access to healthy foods, create safe places for physical exercise and help guide lifestyle changes in the community.

“There is no silver bullet – no single solution. Obesity is a complex issue,” Griffin said. “For example, look at the paradox of high rates of food insecurity and obesity in rural areas where so much healthy food is grown. To be successful in addressing this issue we need multilevel, community-driven solutions involving individuals, family, work organizations, schools and public policy.”

Multidisciplinary Extension teams consisting of agents who are from the regions or who have a connection to the the local areas will be created in each of the counties.

“The interdisciplinary teams are a unique part of the project. They will be working to create a connection between business, agriculture, education, health care and community planning in these communities,” Parisi said. “We will follow a 100-year-old model of Extension using grassroots efforts that are driven by the communities themselves, meaning that the community members will choose the activities that will be implemented to enhance health in the community.”

Clemson students from these counties will also have the opportunity to go back and work through summer internships and other opportunities, Griffin said.

These teams will encourage healthy environments and policies with activities like helping small vendors in food deserts connect with local farmers to procure, market and promote fresh foods. Agents also will deliver health programming directly to consumers where they will be taught and encouraged to purchase fresh produce which will support the efforts of the the vendors, Parisi said.

“It’s not just about making fresh foods available in places where it previously hasn’t, but making that food available so that it’s the easiest choice for people to make, it’s the most affordable choice for people and the choice that people want to make,” Griffin said.

During the next five years, Griffin and Parisi are interested in working with local agencies to expand access to fresh foods through policy and environment changes and will partner with state agencies and  programs, such as the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and Farm to School – a program that promotes the acquisition and use of fresh fruits and vegetables in schools and the community. They will also partner with health care organizations based on a community’s chosen priorities to promote health education and health care delivery related to chronic disease prevention and self-management.

The second part of the project – the physical activity component – is focused on walking. The goal is to make the communities more walkable and to promote walking from both a policy and an individual perspective to help the community plan, use and sustain safe places for exercise and help schools increase physical activity.

While the primary aim of this project is to see a decrease in adult obesity rates in each community, Griffin and Parisi also plan to track changes in community support for healthy eating and physical activity as well as changes in obesity-related health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Griffin said this initiative with the Extension service can help build on successful obesity health initiatives in South Carolina and expand the efforts already in place.

“Through the county Extension offices, we plan to build more resources to have a locally grown effort to address obesity with the guidance of CDC,” Griffin said. “Extension has a long-trusted history in these communities. This is an opportunity for them to be even more involved through health initiatives and obesity-related projects, positively impacting our state and its residents.”