Meadville Tribune

April 5, 2013

Local obesity task force struggles

Lack of manpower, funds and commitment stifle success

By Chelsea Fleischman
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — A small crowd of five students, Allegheny College Environmental Science Associate Professor Caryl Waggett and three community members, each representing a different organization, gathered in the college’s campus center on March 8.

After nearly an hour and a half of brainstorming, Waggett wrapped up as those present for the monthly Balanced Eating and Movement in Meadville (BEAM) meeting gathered their notepads and packed lunches, preparing to head back to work or class.

It was Crawford County Retired Senior Volunteer Program Project Director Whisper Romeo’s first BEAM meeting. She was also there to represent the local Family and Community Christian Association. She raised her hand and addressed the group, unsure of what she should be doing before the next meeting.

“I want to be involved but I’m not sure where to go and in what direction because I don’t want to step on anyone’s feet,” she said. “That’s why I was throwing out to them, where do we go from here, what’s going to happen? I’m the kind of person where I’m done talking about it. We need to be doing something about it.”

Romeo said that she got the sense that the group might have been burnt out, as though it hadn’t had enough support in the last few years. She hadn’t even heard of the task force until recently.

“I’m so shocked that I hadn’t heard of it, and when I did hear about it and all the wonderful things that they have done in the past and the different projects they have done, I was really impressed,” she said. “So it’s really sad that the word is not out, that more people aren’t knowing that this exists and that they’re trying to do these initiatives.”

BEAM formed in 2010 after the Meadville Medical Center’s 2002-2003 and 2010-2011 community health needs assessments for Crawford County revealed that both adult and childhood obesity are a regional problem.

But after three years of regular meetings, an exhausting three-month pilot program and dwindling attendance, the group’s capabilities are limited. A decline in committed participants, lack of money and the personal struggle that the most active participants face in finding time for the committee between their work and personal schedules have challenged the task force.

BEAM was envisioned as a collaborative effort that developed out of talks among Meadville Medical Center, Allegheny College and the City of Meadville. Waggett said that roughly 20 local organizations and institutions were present for the first meeting.

But for this year’s February meeting, which was the first since October, just 13 people attended. Five were Allegheny College students currently involved or interested in becoming involved with BEAM. For the March meeting, even fewer people attended.

Waggett addressed Romeo’s confusion, explaining that from her perspective, all planning needed to be made long-term, as the task force doesn’t have the energy, volunteers, money or time for short-term goals.

Passport to a Healthier You

BEAM’s last initiative, “Passport to a Healthier You” ran from April 14 to July 14, 2012. It was intended to coordinate the efforts and events already organized by local groups promoting nutrition and exercise.

It consisted of 13 events. Participating families registered and answered a pre-program survey. To receive a grocery store gift card incentive, families had to complete 12 events throughout the program.

In addition to any of the scheduled events, children could take part in outside activities for credit, such as food journals, a recipe contest or activities OK’d by a coach or guardian.

A total of 91 children from 54 families registered for the program. Of these families, 51 completed a pre-program survey. Forty-four of the registered children opted to have their height and weight measured to calculate their BMI.

“The passport was not intended to address and prevent childhood obesity,” Waggett said. “It was just a test to see if we could incentivize parents and I don’t know that it proved that or not because I don’t know if the design was good enough from a scientific perspective.”

The program did not have a consistent survey, as the long lines on launch day caused the BEAM team to shorten the original questionnaire from 30 questions to 13. Waggett said the survey primarily addressed attitude and behaviors, but it should have covered more on knowledge and financial demographics. BEAM was also challenged by a lack of funds and volunteers.

“It was so tiring for the vast majority of people who volunteered their time that five months had to pass before they were willing to say that they still thought this was an important effort,” Waggett said.

But she pointed out that the lack of power behind the Passport program is reflective of a larger problem for BEAM.

“As important as it is, task forces are always put on top of other obligations, and that’s one of the challenges of this,” she said. “Until it’s a mandate at every level, it’s very difficult to ensure that this is a real community based priority.”

Different approaches

Meadville Medical Center Chief Innovations Officer Dr. Barry Bittman said hospital officials have used several different approaches in addressing the local childhood obesity issue. Despite the success of their adult programs, he has found that working with children is more challenging.

“I think across America, people are truly recognizing the fact that this is far more difficult than most people would have ever imagined based upon the fact that you’re really changing the behavior of the family and not just the child,” he said.

That has also been the experience of Brenda Pardee, health services coordinator at Twin Creeks Head Start, a comprehensive preschool program for primarily low-income children.

“It is a highly emotionally charged issue,” she said. “It’s a very touchy subject to talk to a parent about their child being overweight, especially if the parent is overweight, and I’m not going to say every parent because it’s certainly not everybody but I think that often they want us to work with their child but they don’t want it to change how they cook or their lack of exercise and things like that.”

Meadville pediatrician Dr. Raymond Leung correlates the region’s slightly higher obesity rate with its relatively conservative mindset.

“In general, an obese conservative person does not view obesity as a significant problem,” he said in an email. “When you present a different viewpoint which they already have heard many times, they are unlikely to accept your argument in a very short period of time.”

He said that when he has an obese or overweight patient, he shows the parents their child’s height and weight charts, explains what they mean and tries to suggest ways of limiting calorie intake and increasing exercise.

“With their response, you know whether they are going to listen or not,” he said. “I would not spend much time if the parents are not responsive.”

Crawford Central School District Superintendent Charles Heller also said that there’s only so much the schools can do within the six to seven hours of the school day.

A daily 30-minute recess is required at the elementary level, as long as the weather isn’t below 20 degrees, and all levels participate in weekly or biweekly gym classes. Health units are covered in elementary, eighth and 10th grade levels.

The schools have adopted the latest federal and state comprehensive nutrition programs for breakfast and lunch standards but Heller said that increasing waste and deteriorating participation indicate that both students and parents don’t support the changes.

Heller said that a significant lack of funding has also challenged the school district. In the 2011-2012 school year, he said that 42 teacher positions, seven administrative and roughly 40 support positions were laid off. The approved budget for the 2012-2013 school year was $1.5 million less than it was in the previous year, and as the district prepares next year’s budget, there isn’t enough funding to support fourth- and seventh-grade instructional swim programs at the Meadville Area Recreational Complex.

Heller attended the first few BEAM meetings, but said he was unable to continue going because of his schedule.

Waggett said that for many of those involved, herself included, the task force is an add on.

“We’re doing it because we passionately and truly believe that this is really important,” she said.

But until the issue becomes a top priority and collective effort between the city, school district, hospital and community, she said that success will be limited.

“I don’t think we can have the impact that we need until every institution is putting their money and their energy behind it,” she said. “Everyone knows darn well that if you want something to happen it requires not just somebody talking about it or hoping that by volunteer effort or a grant there’s enough behind it. It needs to say this is a top priority; and long term, it has incredible health outcomes for all of us and economic outcomes for everybody.”

About the author

Chelsea Fleischman is a senior at Allegheny College from Sarver, a small town north of Pittsburgh.

All students at Allegheny must complete a senior comprehensive project specific to their major in order to graduate, applying the knowledge and skills that they’ve learned over the course of their education. As an English major on the journalism track and a biology minor, Fleischman always intended to go into the health field but couldn’t ignore her love for writing. She saw the senior project as an opportunity to combine these two interests, and after hearing about local childhood obesity statistics from Allegheny College Environmental Associate Professor Caryl Waggett, she decided to explore the topic.