Is It Possible to Save the Most Obese County in the Nation?

Vani Hari, the food writer behind the wildly successful blog, Food Babe, was lucky when she graduated from college: She landed a great job right away. That’s a golden ticket for any recent graduate who has hit the job market during the worst economic slump in decades, but Hari’s luck was even better than most. Her job catered all her meals. She'd hit the jackpot. That is, she says, until she gained almost 30 pounds on her small frame in just a few months.

Not long after, Hari was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis, a condition that she says she can’t prove was diet-related, but suspects was linked to her sudden onset of weight. “That kind of changed my perspective on my health and my lifestyle,” she tells TakePart,  “and making sure that health was number one, versus my job.”

Overhauling her eating habits, she set her sights on eating well in a corporate environment where working through lunch—and chowing down on takeout—is a given.

“I learned everything I needed to learn to heal myself,” she says. Three years later, her diet is devoid of processed foods, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, and she’s no longer using the four or five medicines she used to take for asthma.

Recently, she got a call from writer Daniel Seddiqui, a guy whose post-college luck was exactly opposite hers. Seddiqui's pursuit of employment was so dire upon graduation, he ended up trying 52 jobs in a single year and writing a book about it, 50 Jobs in 50 States. One of those jobs landed him in Pickens, Mississippi, where he met some of the most obese people in the nation. Now he was calling on Hari to lend her nutritional know-how. He'd found her blog and thought she could help him transform the town.

Seddiqui convinced Hari to join him on a trip to Pickens where he says he witnessed such unhealthy conditions, he felt compelled to return and help some day. 

With trepidation—her degree is in computer science, not nutrition, and unlike the residents of Pickens, she’s always had access to organic foods—Hari agreed to join Seddiqui on a trip to what she was told was one of America’s notorious “food deserts.”

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Pickens is located in Holmes County, which has earned a reputation as the most obese county in the nation. Forty percent of the population is below the poverty line, with a median family income of $20,956.

“It’s the worst place in America where you could start to help people,” Hari says, “but then, maybe that’s the place to start."

Packing a cooler of food so that she’d always have healthy options available, Hari hopped a plane to meet the residents of Pickens.

Prior to her arrival, Seddiqui worked with community members to build support around the idea of launching healthier lifestyles. One component was a 5k race, the first ever in Pickens' history. Seddiqui also brought locals on board to help prepare the community to accept Hari into their town. At the first meeting, 25 people showed up to get involved, a promising start for Seddiqui.

Immediately, the challenges were evident: "Almost every person had diabetes," she says. Locals told Seddiqui that almost every week, they lose someone to obesity-related illness. Knowing that obesity rates are on the rise all over America, Hari couldn't help but look at Pickens residents and see the future of America. If we don't get off the path we're on, she says, "That’s what everyone’s going to look like in 2030."

Over the next four days, Hari and Seddiqui dished up as much nutritional knowledge as they could. They took residents for trips to the grocery store where, as a group, they examined food labels. Hari made fruit and veggie smoothies—dubbed Hari Smoothies since her last name fittingly means “green” in Hindi—and introduced locals to items that are staples in slow food circles, like quinoa. With her cooler handy, she shared samples of what she’d brought from locals.

“Instead of preaching my lifestyle with someone, I was able to just share it in a non-confrontational way and a non-demanding way [so people could] see that real food is really good and healthy food is really good.”

The trip was eye-opening for Hari, too. Before leaving, she had braced herself for an environment stripped of any nutritious options, but she learned that the situation in Pickens was more complex than that.

“I thought this really [would be] a food desert, but when I got there, that wasn’t the case at all,” she says. There were organic farms, but they were catering to the market in Jackson, about 40 miles away.  “Nobody was really funneling it into these communities,” she says.  “There is a disconnect here. This stuff is being grown up the road from you, but you have to drive 50 miles to get it? This is crazy.”

And residents were savvier than she expected. Though they didn't have access to the kind of information that wealthier communities do, they knew their diets were costing them. When Hari tentatively introduced healthier items with a heftier price tag, locals were receptive, despite their limited incomes. "They said, 'You’re either going to pay for it in food or pay for it in medical bills.' I didn’t have to tell them that."

The trip wasn't smooth sailing throughout; Hari met some resistence, and there was also the obstacle of Picken's grocery stores offering limited options. "The foods that we really need to eliminate all together from the American food supply, it’s all they eat," she says.  But she does believe long-term change is possible. Three days after learning about quinoa, a family Hari spoke to went out and bought a box. 

"It wasn’t like anyone was watching them or keeping tabs on what they were doing," Hari says. "It was all on their own, so it was inspiring. I was telling them about things, but it was their choice.”

She also challenged them go skip meat one day a week, read labels and grow some of their own food so they would know how it was grown.

She's not done with these kinds of trips just yet—"I haven't abandoned Pickens!' she says—but more important to her is encouraging others to continue the work she's done. “They’re the people that are really going to be able to change their groups of people. Outsiders can only do so much. People within the community can create the change from within just by being the change.”

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A sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, Megan likes writing about food almost as much as eating it. If you don't want to know what's in your fruit/milk/meat, don't invite her to lunch. @babybokchoy |