West Marion forum gets $500,000 grant to address childhood obesity

From The McDowell News

“The West Marion Community Forum is receiving a $500,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation to address the problem of childhood obesity in McDowell County.

The West Marion forum will receive this four-year grant as part of its community-centered health initiative. The purpose of this grant is “to establish community and clinical partnerships to develop strategies to address childhood obesity with a focus on the family unit and the underlying factors that contribute to this health disparity in McDowell County, NC,” according to a news release.

“We are excited to support the next chapter of what is happening in West Marion,” said Dr. John Lumpkin, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. “This is a model of community-centered health — with residents, community organizations, and health care coming together to create a shared vision of what their community can be. This inspiring collaboration will undoubtedly have lasting impact on the people of McDowell County.”

This project is titled “Shift Happens: For the Health of Our Community” and was awarded after an intensive 15-month planning process led by a core team of partners. This team included the Community Engagement Project, Centro Unido Latino-Americano, Mission Hospital McDowell, McDowell Local Food Advisory Council, the Foothills Food Hub, Equitable Community Strategies, N.C. Center for Health & Wellness, and the West Marion Community Forum.

“The commitment to our team is amazing and we live true to our hashtag ‘It Takes a Village’ and we have a strong one that will support and collaborate with each other,” said Paula Swepson Avery, executive director of the West Marion Community Forum. “And remember it’s about collaboration not competition and we will be mindful to work together for the betterment of the community.”

This community-centered health approach will engage the people who have experienced the conditions that cause inequities to develop locally tailored interventions alongside of local health care organizations.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to work on this new initiative, the most exciting part is working with our new clinical and education partners. The fact that we can all come together and address this issue and learn from one another will make this project a success,” said Ginger Webb, core team member and program manager of the Community Engagement Project.

Dawna Goode-Ledbetter, board chair of the West Marion forum said “I am extremely proud of the core team’s work and dedication to meeting the needs of our communities. This group of leaders has consistently sought out grassroots solutions to meeting these needs. This initiative is another example of those grassroots efforts that will “shift” the health and well-being of our communities.”

One of the first activities of the grant was to sponsor the “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program” at McDowell County Head Start. This program provides fresh fruits and vegetables to children and encourages them to try healthy food options.

Avery and Webb met with staff to better understand their needs and challenges. They committed to sponsor this program after learning that it had been discontinued due to budget cuts from the school system, according to the news release.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the team has donated to local restaurants who offered free meals to students. They also donated to the Foothills Food Hub, McDowell Senior Center, and McDowell Mission Ministries.

“Heather Edwards, the Foothills Food Hub project developer, has really stepped up to make sure no one goes hungry and we felt that a donation was the best way to support those efforts,” said Avery. “The McDowell Senior Center has seen an increase in needs and have taken a big hit in their food distribution budget, so we donated funds to ensure seniors are being served. Lastly, we made a donation to McDowell Mission Ministries so they can purchase much needed supplies during this crisis.”

The pandemic has not stopped the spirit of this work — it has really exposed the urgency behind it.

“A central part of our mission is to ensure families and children have access to food, shelter, quality jobs, medical care, and fair opportunities,” said Avery. “The pandemic only heightens the disparities in our community, and we are committed to keeping up our work to create a more just future for everyone.”

The core team members for this initiative are Paula Swepson Avery, program manager; Kim Freeman, Mission Hospital McDowell; Mary Snow, Equitable Community Strategies; Ginger Webb, Community Engagement Project; Emily Roberts, McDowell Local Food Advisory Council; Kathy Arriola, Centro Unido Latino Americano; and Heather Edwards, Foothills Food Hub.

The previous members of the core team were Carla Lopez of Centro Unido, Mike Hanlon of the YMCA and Deanna LaMotte of Mission Hospital.

The vision for the Shift Happens project is “community centered health strategies to be people-centered and reflect the lived experiences of children and families across McDowell County.”

“Our partners are committed to institutional changes and creating policy, systems, and environmental shifts with an equity lens,” reads a statement from Shift Happens. “All partners are transparent and accountable to shared outcomes. All data collected will reflect the real-world experiences of children, families and institutions in our community. Systems and processes will be aligned across early child care and pediatric settings that make it easier to address food insecurity and reduce childhood obesity. Families and children are supported to be healthy. Educational tools are readily available to address institutional racism, trauma and biases.”