Fat cats in Mississippi

Fat cats in Mississippi

By Ryan Clark, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger
FAYETTE, Miss. — It’s lunchtime at the Dude Burger, one of the few places the people in Jefferson County, Miss., can go to eat. They choose from the same kinds of food everyday.
Construction worker Joe Edwards of Jefferson County, Miss. lives in the county that reportedly has the most obese people in the nation.
By Greg Jenson, Clarion-Ledger

Hamburgers and fries. Catfish. Hot dogs drizzled in chili and cheese.

But as people approach this walk-up-and-order restaurant, there’s something they don’t know — something that will make many of them angry.

“I can’t believe it,” said Shaleata Malone, clutching a greasy bag. “I never thought it could be here.”

Malone just found out that Jefferson County is the fattest county in the United States.

Obesity is defined by body mass index, or BMI, which was developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to measure body fat based on a person’s height and weight.

The Medstat report said people with the highest BMI are located in Southern states, most notably Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002, used Census Bureau interviews with more than 67,000 families nationwide.

Sylvia Byrd, associate professor of food and nutrition at Mississippi State University, said Southerners have a unique tie to food.

“In the South, we are taught at a very early age to appreciate food, such as at family gatherings and other times socially,” said Byrd, a registered dietitian who grew up on a North Carolina farm. “We want the comfort that comes from food.”

Reasons for the problem are as many as the flavors at the local ice cream parlor. Is it a lack of exercise or poor eating habits? Is it the marketing of junk food or too much TV watching? Is it genetics, or a lack of information about good eating habits? Is it the disintegration of the family or the convenience of a drive-through dinner?

“There is no one answer,” Byrd said. “But to start solving the problem, it can be put into easy terms. People should eat less and exercise more. If they don’t, bad things can happen.”

The predominantly black, rural county in southwest Mississippi offers few jobs paying above minimum wage. There is no McDonald’s; no Wal-Mart. Residents can be found lounging on sidewalks or walking into one of the few small shops along Main Street.

Only 11% of people in Jefferson County ages 25 and up have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 17% statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Joe Edwards, a construction worker, stopped at Lula’s One Stop restaurant and gas station for a meat lovers’ pizza. He said he weighs about 390 pounds. At 5 feet 11, his BMI would hit 56, well beyond the morbidly obese range.

Edwards grew up on a farm, and his family always ate well, he said. “I’m talking grits, greens and cornbread. We made our own cornmeal. We ate a lot of the good stuff.”

One thing is certain. Edwards does not plan to change himself for anyone. “Look, man, I can bend over and touch my toes,” he said, doing it just in case someone doesn’t believe him. “I don’t need to change. It’s just the way I am.”

The distance people have to travel to get to a grocery store can also affect their diet, said Troy Blanchard, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State.

In 1995, the average American traveled six miles to get to the market, while those in the lower Mississippi Delta had to go at least 30 miles, according to an ongoing study by Blanchard and Thomas Lyson of Cornell University.

“The remaining choices for these residents, such as small convenience stores, gas stations, and restaurants, offer few prospects for the maintenance of a quality diet,” the study said.

Back at Dude Burger, Shirley Moncure, a trim woman who’s just been told the news about Jefferson County’s fat problem, doesn’t believe it. “They don’t know what they’re talking about!” she shouts as she places an order. “There’s fatter people even in Mississippi than in Jefferson County. Go to Utica! Look there!”

She grabbed her order and stormed to her car. “And for the record, I got a salad and a water!”

Just then, Angenel Washington, a 21-year-old day-care worker, walked up to place an order. She says the real problem lies in the county’s children.

“From 5 months old to 15 years old, you see a lot of obese kids,” she said. “It’s the parents that are the most important. They have to make sure to create a healthy person.”

With that, Washington got her order — a hot dog covered in cheese.