Dan River Region research project fights obesity

The Dan River Region of Virginia has the dubious distinction of being one of the most health-deficient regions of the United States.

The area that stretches along the border of North Carolina from Patrick to Halifax counties has an almost 50 percent higher rate of diabetes than the rest of the country, a 5 percent higher rate of obesity, and 17 percent of the area’s residents live below the federal poverty line. One in four do not have health insurance.

Virginia Tech researchers are working on a solution to improve residents' health by developing a multi-pronged program that aims to incorporate nutrition education, exercise initiatives, and community gardens. The multifaceted approach could be used as a model plan to battle the obesity epidemic in similar communities across America.


Doctoral student Clarice Waters, at left, and Nicole Olive complete an assessment of a food store in the Dan River Region. Doctoral student Clarice Waters, at left, and Nicole Olive, who graduated in 2013 with a degree in Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, complete an assessment of a food store in the Dan River Region.

Associate Professor Jamie Zoellner and Assistant Professor Jennie Hill, both in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are helping lead the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community, a community-academic partnership between Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and more than 50 organizations including churches, government offices, grassroots organizations, and health professionals.

The group’s mission is to foster community partnerships to combat obesity in the Dan River Region by educating the community about healthy lifestyle initiatives.

“We know there is no one thing that is going to solve the obesity epidemic, so we are using several strategies to approach this issue,” said Hill, who along with Zoellner is a member of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center. “We are engaging the entire community to address this problem from the ground up.”

Bryan E. Price, chairman of the organization and health and wellness program director for Danville Parks and Recreation, said community members jumped at the chance to improve their lives.

“In this program, locals are invested in working to break the cycle of unhealthy habits,” he said. “Healthier people are happier people, and in the long run we feel that the improved health status will lead to an overall more successful Dan River Region.”

Many parts of the Dan River Region are classified as “food deserts,” where people have limited access or no access at all to healthy, affordable foods. Outside the city limits of Danville in Pittsylvania County, there is only one grocery store within 1,110 square miles. That drives people to shop at local convenience stores where choices are limited.

Clarice Waters of Clifton, Va,. a doctoral student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, and other research assistants, fanned out across the county to assess more than 400 food outlets and measure the accessibility of healthy food.

They rated the available food on a scale of zero to 30, with zero representing unhealthy foods and 30 indicating a cornucopia of good options.

“The entire region had an average of six,” Hill said. “It goes to show that even if people wanted to eat healthy, they don’t have access to healthy food options.”


Felicia Reese, a graduate student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, teaches children how to eat healthier foods. Felicia Reese, a graduate student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, teaches children how to eat healthier foods.

In 2013, expanding on a pilot project from 2012, a gardening program targeting youth was offered at six sites serving low-income youth.

“It makes a difference in their lives because the successes and failures of their garden are based on the hard work, attitudes, time, and effort that they put in,” said Tadashi Totten, a 4-H and youth development Extension agent.

But instead of just planting gardens and assuming they are inherently positive factors within the community, the researchers are measuring how much food comes out of them to ascertain how much of an impact the gardens will have on residents.

The partnership has had several sources of funding in recent years. The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth has provided a consistent source of monies of about $140,000 over three years. The project received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and test a childhood obesity treatment program. It also got a $45,000 start-up grant from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for the community garden initiative. The Danville Regional Foundation-Make it Happen!, the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and the Virginia Tech Fralin Life Science Institute have also supported the project.

So far, the program has had tremendous success, which in the long run might not just help the Dan River Region, but the U.S. as a whole.

“America is in the midst of an obesity crisis and we hope that this model of academic partners such as Virginia Tech teaming up with local groups can be used to find solutions to solve the obesity epidemic around the U.S.,” Zoellner said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Zeke Barlow or 540-231-5417.

Video: About the program

    Dan River Region research project could be a model to combat nationwide obesity epidemic

Virginia Tech researchers are teaming up with residents in the Dan River area to combat obesity.

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