BECKELY, WV (WVNS) — On most days, you can find wellness coordinator Kevin Williams at the Access Health Wellness Center in Beckley, training his fellow West Virginians on how to get and stay healthy.

Before coming to Access Health, Williams taught physical education at Park Middle School, where he said on Friday, April 28, 2023, that he saw children, the state’s most innocent residents, struggling with obesity.

“You will have children who have difficulty even participating in recess, due to the fact that they are overweight,” he said. “When you look at some of the statistics, a lot of these children are not really able to eat healthier.”

Statistics from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources show nearly 20 percent of West Virginia children are obese, the seventh-highest national average.

A number of teachers and principals in southern West Virginia have said their schools have enrolled children who can’t run and play.

Pediatricians said their field once focused on preventive care and treating common childhood ailments, but now they manage chronic health conditions like type two diabetes caused by low exercise and poor diet.

“You will hear, ‘Well this is how my parents ate. This is how the grandparents ate,’” said Williams. “So I think it’s a long family history of eating a certain way.”

The American Diabetes Association statistics show wealthier countries like the U.S. usually have higher rates of obesity than poor countries because food, including snacks, are easier to get. But low-income people in the U.S. are more likely to be obese because fresh, healthy food is harder to get and more expensive in poverty-dense regions, according to multiple studies.

West Virginia’s poverty rate is over one third higher than the national average, and a higher percentage of residents receive food assistance. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows a large number of West Virginians rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was once called food stamps. Over a third are families with children. The federal government puts some restrictions on SNAP — no hot deli, fast food or alcohol, for example — but supermarkets can still take EBT payment for high calorie foods like potato chips, soft drinks and snack cakes.

Williams said when finding a solution, federal lawmakers could possibly step in with restriction, but school districts can also help kids make healthier choices.

“Could the government step in and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna assist you but we’ll give you x amount of dollars to do whatever you want to do with, but the rest you’re going to learn to eat healthier,’” said Williams. “Again, do we want to try regulating it or do we want to try educating individuals to make healthier choices? It’s a slippery slope.”

Those opposed to regulating SNAP benefits say it’s an overreach of government to micromanage what poor families eat, particularly when healthy foods cost more.

Williams said he believes education is key to turning the tide on childhood obesity.
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows it costs about one dollar and fifty cents more each day to eat healthy.

Some SNAP recipients say, because of recent inflation, the current allotment isn’t enough to cover the cost of healthy foods or, in some cases, to help with food insecurity.