Small Town Collaboration Starts a Movement in Rural Virginia

March 13, 2012
By Julie Eisen

In Lee County, Virginia, 42 percent of children aged 5 to 17 are overweight or obese, a figure that is well over the national average of 33 percent. To reach the County’s youth in a healthy weight initiative, the Virginia Healthy Weight Collaborative team knew that they would need to meet the kids on their own turf: the schools.

“One thing we soon realized was that these kids are only coming into primary care once a year,” recalls Kay Matlock, leader of the Virginia Healthy Weight Collaborative team and Program Development Officer at Stone Mountain Health Services. “The only other time we see them is if they’re sick, which is not the best time for parents to buy into anything related to weight management. So we realized that to reach the 3,300 kids enrolled in the school system, we were going to have to reach them through the school system.”

Lee County sits at the southwestern tip of Virginia in the heart of Appalachia, nestled between the Kentucky and Tennessee borders. With a total population of 26,000 spread across 437 square miles, the community operates like most of small-town rural America, where information is often passed through word-of-mouth or from friends of friends. Matlock’s first order of business was to convince the school system to implement her team’s healthy weight programming for the County’s 13 schools, a task that tested her knowledge of small-town culture.

Winning over the School System
To get the school board to consider her proposed programming, Matlock explains that she “worked the system backwards.” Rather than go through the school system and “force feed” them the project, a team member affiliated with the school district received permission from a school board member to use one of the board’s offices for the meeting. Matlock left the door open for the meeting while the team discussed their plans and needs from the school, hoping that members of the board would overhear and want to find out more. Her hunch panned out: the superintendent approached Matlock after hearing the meeting from his next-door office. This conversation led to invitations for the team to present their plans before the school system’s health advisory committee and the school board itself, which ultimately granted the team approval to proceed with their programs.

Removing Deep Fryers and Offering Healthier Foods
The Virginia team’s next step was to remove the deep fryers from the county’s eight elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools – a process that was spearheaded by team member Kathy Turner, the Director of School Cafeterias and Physical Education for the Lee County School System. With Turner as an advocate, Matlock says the policy change was “pretty cut and dry,” and that the fryers have been gone since November. To replace the previous cooking methods, the school cafeterias now bake all foods which were previously fried, such as French fries and chicken nuggets. The switch has also prompted the cafeteria to add healthier items to the menu, including more whole grain options and fresh fruits and vegetables. Aside from a few complaints from students that the French fries are soggier, pushback has been minimal and Matlock sees this as a long-term policy change.

Adding Zumba to Physical Education Classes
While developing program plans, the team heard from a handful of physical education teachers that students were interested in Zumba, a Latin-inspired fitness program that has gained popularity over the last few years. After mentioning the schools’ interest in offering Zumba classes during a meeting at Stone Mountain Health Center, Tina Lawson, a nurse at the center, offered to become an instructor for the school system. The Collaborative funded her Zumba certification, and Stone Mountain’s CEO offered to compensate the time she would spend in the schools. Lawson will begin teaching Zumba in physical education classes over the next month. If the classes are a success, Matlock plans to expand the program across the school system, with the hopes of getting additional funding to provide each school with Zumba fitness DVDs.

5-2-1-0 Poster Contest in the Schools
The Team has also organized a poster contest for students to express the healthy weight messaging “5-2-1-0” (a reminder to eat five fruits and vegetables per day, spend less than two hours in front of recreational screens, engage in at least one hour of exercise, and consume zero sugar-sweetened beverages). Team members will provide educational presentations to students in grades four through eight on the 5-2-1-0 messaging, and the students will then be asked to design a poster that promotes healthy weight management, nutrition, and exercise. The winner will receive a Wii Fit, and his poster will be featured on the upcoming LeeFit5210 website. Additionally, the winning poster will appear on billboards around the County that have been donated by a local bank – a partnership spawned by a team member’s family connection.

Future Projects
In addition to in-school changes, the team is planning a challenge for Lee County students to walk 26 miles over summer vacation. As a reward, every child that meets the challenge will walk in Lee County’s annual fall festival that draws crowds from across Virginia. Finally, as farmers markets re-open for the season, the team is working with the Lee County Health Department to permit sellers to accept food stamps, so fresh fruits and vegetables may be accessible for more of the community.

Homegrown Collaboration
“The biggest phenomenon about all this,” says Matlock, “is that we haven’t had to beg or ask anyone to do anything. We reached out in strategic places, and we have people coming to us.” By taking advantage of the close-knit ties and local interest that a small town cultivates, Matlock has been able to create a community-wide movement – a movement that’s still growing. Recently the team received media coverage after a reporter saw Matlock’s presentation at the school board meeting and took an interest in the Collaborative. “What can I say? We’re small-town rural America at its best!”