Childhood obesity is a modern day problem in Martinsville and Henry County

In some matters it’s not so good to come out on top, and that’s definitely the case regarding obesity ratings in Southside.

Statewide, federal data shows about one in seven students are obese and by the 12th grade, 17.4% of the student population are overweight.

The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a program of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, show 39% of adults in Henry County are obese and Patrick County is at 33%.

And logic would dictate that their children are following suit.

On Thursday, Henry County Public Schools posted on Facebook a 1953 photograph of students in the cafeteria at Drewry Mason High School. The caption read: “ … What was your favorite school lunch when you were in school?”

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The responses were plentiful and similar, with the most popular answer being some variety of pizza: rectangular or square pizza, sometimes with French or Thousand Island dressing.

Other favorites included peanut butter sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, hotdogs and hamburgers, vegetable soup, homemade yeast roles, turkey and dressing, cinnamon crispy cookies, cherry pie, chocolate chip cookies, pinto beans and cornbread, square-baked eggs, grilled cheese, corn dogs, cheese biscuits and spaghetti.

Sherry Vestal, Henry County Public Schools nurse coordinator, will be retiring at the end of the month after 34 years as the lead nurse in her school division. She has has been in charge of many health and wellness efforts not only for the school system, but for the community.

“The most important change that I have seen over the last 25 to 30 years is that families are constantly on the go with various activities,” Vestal said. “This change doesn’t allow families to sit down together for a dinner meal, or they pick up something to eat for the family through a drive-thru, which is usually late, and then children go to bed.”

Though during normal times being busy with activities got in the way of healthy, home-cooked meals, being homebound during the pandemic hurt kids in terms of missing out on physical activity, exacerbating the problem.

“People were afraid to go out because of the fear of either catching Covid or spreading it to a loved one, and video game mania became the new rage. Once you become inactive, it is hard to undo the bad behavior.”

Sheilah Williams, Martinsville City Public Schools director of early childhood and school nutrition services, weighed in: “As a federally-funded meals program, we provide healthy and nutritious meals based on standards provided by the USDA, which include portion control, documentation of sodium and calorie counts and fat content, and the inclusion of a variety of fruits and vegetables from multiple subgroups like leafy and dark greens, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas and others. Those requirements are outlined for us by the USDA, and we have to follow those guides. That’s why we offer the foods that we do, including whole grains and 1% fat-free milks.”

Despite the prevalence of obesity, Williams’ description of the food served in Martinsville school cafeterias today sounds similar to those mentioned as favorites at Drewry Mason almost 70 years ago.

“In our school division, we pride ourselves on doing a lot of scratch cooking whenever possible,” Williams said. “That means our food will have fewer preservatives and is better quality. Our students want and enjoy the homemade meatloaf, homemade spaghetti and homemade nachos. We make our own chili, soups, all our own sauces, even our own salsa.”

Regardless of the implementation of healthy foods and habits in the schools, Williams admitted, they can only do so much.

“Parents are the first teachers,” said Williams. “Students and children are going to mimic what they see at home. We can do our part in schools, but it needs to be modeled in the homes first. Students need that example.”

Williams said even though the healthy and free breakfasts, lunches and snacks are provided to all students, it still doesn’t mean that they are going to eat it.

“They eat what they’re familiar with,” Williams said. “We all can work together and support one another by having a set meal time, having set bedtimes, having an afternoon routine, and providing a variety of healthy, nutritious foods, including a variety of fruits and vegetables and limiting processed foods.”

Another key that Williams spoke of is access to fresh meats and vegetables, which she described as “challenging in our area.”

The 2022 County Health Rankings National Findings Report released in July showed out of 133 cities and counties in Virginia, Martinsville was rated among the unhealthiest localities in the state.

The city of Martinsville was rated 129, ahead of only the cities of Galax, Hopewell, Emporia and Petersburg.

In the region, Danville was rated 127, followed by the counties of Henry at 112, Pittsylvania at 98, Patrick with 95 and Franklin ranking 67th on the list.

Obesity was one of the primary factors in the ratings.

Changes through the years

Why have so many of us become overweight and how did it happen? Comparing today with the past appears to provide some insight.

George Monbiot researched the subject in a report for The Guardian on Aug. 15, 2018. Although the report was for the United Kingdom, he found that the only data with enough history to be useful was in the United States.

When comparing Americans in 2018 to 1976, he discovered we actually consumed more calories then than we do now. Then he found a long-term study at Plymouth University that showed, despite common belief, the physical activity of children is pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago. Of course, his report was a year before the pandemic began.

When Monbiot compared the nutrition of today’s food to the food we ate when obesity was not the critical concern it is today, what he discovered was remarkable.

He found that today we buy half as much fresh milk as we did in 1976, but five times more yogurt, three times more ice cream and 39 times as many diary desserts.

We buy half as many eggs, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the amount of potatoes, but three times the amount of potato chips.

Monbiot also found that although we buy far less sugar directly than we used to, the amount of sugar we consume has skyrocketed. “Food companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms,” he wrote.

Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-591-7543. Follow him @billdwyatt.