In Efforts to Address Obesity, Black College Cafeterias Are Rolling Out Veggie-Heavy Menus

NORFOLK, Va.

It’s an October afternoon at Norfolk State University, and the dining
hall on this predominantly Black campus has enough tantalizing choices
to throw graduate student Tina Carroll into a lunchtime dilemma.

Piled in front of her are carrot discs, green peas and steaming squash
chunks. Nearby, breaded chicken patties fan out like meaty playing
cards and french fries glisten in fat-laden glory.

Carroll nibbles her fingernails, her eyes darting between each
selection. At 187 pounds — well above what’s recommended for her
5-foot-2 frame — the 22-year-old knows decisions she makes here could
mean the difference between the bootylicious body of her dreams or a
lifetime of weight problems.

Nationwide, health experts agree the obesity epidemic is striking
deepest among Hispanics and Blacks, with waistlines — and instances of
diabetes, hypertension and stroke — expanding at alarming rates.

Black colleges are stepping in, rolling out veggie-heavy menus,
building walking trails and even enacting campus-wide weight loss
contests. Their aim: to curb the ballooning of Black America by
targeting the next generation.

“Our students are at a prime time in their lives where they can make
choices that can prevent them from having these problems,” said
Cynthia Burwell, head of Norfolk State’s internship programs and an
organizer of the health effort.

Similar weight-loss initiatives have been started at five other
historically Black colleges: Talladega College in Alabama; Alcorn State
University in Mississippi; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; South
Carolina State University; and Wiley College in Texas.

Their programs are supported through federal grants distributed by the
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Later,
the umbrella group will turn over data on student weight trends to the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health
for review.

NAFEO grew concerned last year after noticing national obesity trends
having an especially striking impact at the 120 schools it represents.

“Obesity as we all know is an epidemic across the country, particularly
affecting minorities,” said NAFEO senior health adviser Julia
Anderson. “It’s no secret.”

Estimates deem as many as 129.6 million Americans overweight or obese —
the latter defined as weighing at least 20 percent more than
recommended for one’s height.

Blacks — and especially women — are carrying many of the pounds: A
study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found as many
as 70.6 percent of Black women across various age groups qualified as
overweight or obese between 1999 and 2002.

And while few of the participating Black colleges keep hard data,
Alcorn State human sciences chairman Ross Santell said it’s easy to see
the weight problem is alive and well on Black campuses.

“Many, many, many students are obese,” said Santell, organizer of his
campus’ weight-loss effort, which includes passing out pedometers. “If
you look around campus, you can see that clearly our student body is
overweight.”

Officials at Wiley estimate nearly 25 percent of their students are
overweight, and at Lincoln University, 90 students and staffers have
already signed up to shed pounds through their eight-week, campus-wide
fitness challenge.

At Norfolk State, campus health experts teach students how to gauge
their weight by measuring body mass index and shrinking jean sizes
rather than dreaded weigh-ins. In dining halls, monthly theme nights
highlight new types of fruits and vegetables, while “PHAT stations”
set up across campus let students assess things such as blood pressure
and heart rates.

“All connect going toward the same outcome, which is to improve the
fitness of our folks,” said Spartan Health Center medical director
John Anderson.

They’re battling more than just the lure of Burger King.

For one, Anderson said they’re up against decades of cultural tradition
that emphasizes pig’s feet, chitterlings and other soul food staples
doctors say just aren’t healthy.

Combine that with a sense of invincibility and you get students picking fried chicken over veggie burgers, he said.

Being away from the structure of home further complicates things, Michaile Rainey said.

“Once you come to college, you can pretty much pick and choose what
type of food and when you want to eat it,” she said. “You can order
Domino’s at 2 a.m. because you’re studying. That’s a contributor.”

Carroll, the Norfolk State grad student, can testify. A former runner
and volleyball player, the Philadelphia native maintained a size 6
throughout high school. Now she’s closer to a size 14.

“When I got to college, it went from two meals a day to three meals
plus snacks,” said Carroll, who estimates of her six closest friends,
all are over their ideal weights.

Now she tends to eat on the run, avoiding the square meal and
vegetarian options offered in campus cafeterias in favor of grab-and-go
sandwiches.

She joined the health challenge in hopes of dropping 30 pounds and
reaching her ideal of “thick” that is, thin, but with strategic curves.

“I’m going into PR, where you need to have … that magazine look,”
she said, munching on her french fries and chicken sandwich.

— Associated Press



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