Kids swing after a recent school day Elmhurst Elementary in Greenville. But studies show a high obesity rate in the city and elsewhere in Pitt County. (PNN staff photo)

Hali Oughton | PNN contributor

Pitt County prides itself for its Fit Community designation but ironically, it’s also facing an obesity crisis.

A Pirate News Network investigation has found that while Pitt County promotes a healthy lifestyle, the numbers aren’t really there to back it up.=

Health statistics tell a story of ill health. They show that more than half of Pitt County’s 168,148 citizens are overweight or obese.

But the bigger question is whether the obesity numbers reported in the Pitt’s 2010 State of the County Health Report accurately represent the community. Only a small portion of the county’s population was sampled.

To top it off, Pitt County is known for having one of the highest rates of fast food consumption per capita in the nation, leaving an impression that it is anything but fit.

To be a ‘Fit’ community

Pitt County has been aggressive in addressing challenges related to obesity, according to Jennifer Gilchrist Walker, project manager at the Fit Community organization. “The community is taking the steps needed to makes healthier choices,” she said.

One major step was to apply for a Fit Community designation in 2010—and earn a “bronze” designation for the county. Bronze communities have “demonstrated efforts to making healthy lifestyles more accessible in the community,” according to the Fit Community website.

Recipients of the Fit Community designation receive a plaque to be hung in the county commissioners’ office, and recognition in statewide media and on the Fit Community website. Use of the Fit Community designation logo and brochures to distribute amongst the community are other perks that come with being members of the organization, according to the group’s website.

“Fit Community looks at the question of obesity and the root of its causes,” said Walker. “The designation is about looking at the process” of how a community plans to tackle obesity.

But asked if a community’s obesity rate is a factor in awarding Fit Community designations, Walker conceded: No. “The Fit Community has nothing to do with obesity rates,” she said.

Presented with evidence that Greenville, the county’s largest community, has one of the highest numbers of fast food restaurants per capita in the nation, Walker admitted: “I was unaware.”\

Asked if the Fit Community designation could paint a misleading picture of a community’s fitness, Walker said: “It (the designation is) not created with the intention of being misleading.”

She conceded that it is not wrong to think that the Pitt County obesity rate and the Fit Community designation are contradicting facts.

‘Change is slow’

With a limited amount of funding, Special Projects Manager Alice Keene has helped execute projects that offer Pitt County citizens access to healthier lifestyles.

Keene has worked with local schools to develop parks, playgrounds, ball fields, and walking trails that can be used by students and staff during the school day, and by the entire community during non-school hours.

“I feel like we have made some impact, although the (obesity) percentage is not going down as quickly as we would like it to,” said Keene. “We control the vending [food] items that are available to our high school and middle school students. We have many physical activity programs that we’ve put in place for grades K-5. And again, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re seeing progress.”

Even though obesity numbers aren’t improving as quickly as Keene would like, she thinks that Fit Community recognizes what has been done. Recognizing past successes gives the community encouragement to keep moving forward, she said.

“Sometimes change is slow,” said Keene. “We may never have enough resources to do all the things that we would like to do.”

One of Keene’s priorities is to have a crosswalk on County Home Road that connects the nearby public schools to the Farmers Market, and to the park, community garden and senior center.

“The crosswalk is a tiny example,” said Keene. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Is Pitt fat or fit?

While Pitt County has acquired the designation of being a “Fit Community,” the State of the County Health Report suggests something different.

The county health report retrieves its local statistics from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS) conducted by the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics.

In 2009, the BRFSS found that 62.2 percent of Pitt County adults it contacted reported that they were overweight or obese.

But the accuracy of these surveys might raise bigger questions.

While the N.C State survey suggests that more than half of the Pitt County population is obese, it contacted only 360 of the county’s 168,148 residents. That’s two-tenths of one percent of the population.

Add to that a 7 percentage point “confidence interval.” It means that the pollsters are confident that within the county’s population, anywhere from 55.2-69.2 percent of the people are overweight or obese.

Still, that’s a lot of people.

And the combined 14-point spread doesn’t bother Dr. John Morrow, the county’s health director. “I am very confident in the statistics and how representative they are of the community,” he said.

As if the obesity statistics don’t contradict a Fit Community designation enough, physical activity numbers aren’t much better.

The N.C. State survey found that only 42 percent of the Pitt County citizens who participated in the poll met the physical activity recommendations per day in 2009. Also, 85 percent of those surveyed said that they chose to use a motor vehicle instead of walking when traveling to a destination in town.

The Fit Community organization says it awards communities that are promoting healthier lifestyles, but not necessarily whether those programs are successful.

“There’s definitely some conflict,” conceded Morrow.

Fast food county

While the Fit Community organization promotes a healthy lifestyle, the number of fast food restaurants in Pitt County may not.

Pitt County is home to around just under 100 fast food restaurants, not including restaurants that offer sit-down service.

But even an organization like Fit Community can only do so much.

“There are many restrictions as to what communities are allowed to do,” said Walker. “Unfortunately, we can’t limit the number of fast food restaurants.”

But the number of fast food restaurants might not be the problem. The problem might lie in the habits of Pitt County citizens.

In 2006 the research firm Sandelman & Associates found that of the dozens of U.S. cities it surveyed, Greenville led them all in fast food consumption.

About 59 percent of Greenville residents consumed fast food at least 12 or more times per month, according to the survey. Two other North Carolina cities, Greensboro and Raleigh, also were listed in the top 25 for fast food consumption in the nation.

“Fast food really grew up in the south and southeast,” said Paul Clarke, vice president of Sandelman & Associates, which works for the food and restaurant industries. “There is a lot of history there [in the region], but Greenville in particular, it’s hard to say” why fast food consumption is so high.

That trend continues in Pitt County. According to the 2009 BRFSS, 34 percent of county residents polled self-reported that at least three or more of their meals a week came from a fast food restaurant.

Even when eating at a sit down restaurant, only about 40 percent of those polled reported that they looked for an option that is low in fat, sugar or calories.

Do we really know?

Fat or fit, that is the question.

The Fit Community organization seeks to recognize communities that are showing signs of promoting a healthier lifestyle.

“Fit Community looks at the question of obesity and the root of its causes,” said Walker, the group’s project manager. “(We look) at the big picture items that are going to change the current picture.”

But the organization admits that they don’t focus on obesity. They focus on the availability of facilities within a community, not the usage of those facilities.

And part of the bigger picture is how frequently Pitt County citizens eat fast food.

“Our population is using these restaurants more than other counties, probably because other counties have more options for their populations,” said county health director Morrow. “I hope that we can offer more of our population healthier options for nutrition.”

Dr. Lauren Whetstone, a clinical associate professor at ECU, believes that Pitt County is making efforts to offer healthier options.

“Additional farmer’s markets are held in addition to the main market on County Home Road,” said Whetstone. “Also, fresh fruits and vegetables from the community gardens are available in certain participating corner stores.”

These efforts are a result of a grant aimed at preventing obesity from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As far as dining out, there seems to be uncertainty about what is currently being done to promote healthier choices.

“I am not sure about specific efforts to offer healthier dining out options,” said Whetstone. “In the past, some Pitt County restaurants participated in the Winners Circle Healthy Dining Program, which identified menu items that met certain criteria and then marked those items on restaurant menus.”

Winners Circle was run by the non-profit N.C. Partners for Prevention until 2005, when the program lost its public finding. The prevention group “does not currently track county activity related to menu labeling,” its website says.

This story was reported in the fall 2012 Investigative Reporting class.

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