This week The New York Times published a story highlighting the efforts of pastors in the Mississippi Delta to get their congregations to eat healthier. In a state with the second highest adult obesity rate and ranking dead last in life expectancy, the Delta is especially hard hit. Fried and heavily-salted foods dominate the culinary scene and, if there are greens, they are often boiled with ham hocks. Pastors, alarmed by the health of their congregants, began to promote healthier food options at church events and encourage physical activity. Like many attempts to change long-standing traditions, these efforts were initially met with skepticism, if not outright resistance, but over the years more Delta churches and their congregations have begun to change the way they think about food.
Preaching healthy living from the pulpit is not unique to the Mississippi Delta. For the past decade, Bronx Health REACH’s Faith-Based Outreach Initiative has been working with faith-based leaders to incorporate health messages into church activities and provide programming around nutrition and fitness, diabetes prevention and management, and health disparities. Currently, Bronx Health REACH works with 47 churches throughout the Bronx and upper Manhattan. These programs include a Culinary Initiative, which works with church culinary committee members to serve healthier meals at church events, and Fine, Fit, and Fabulous, which teaches nutrition and fitness within a spiritual context. These programs and others have contributed to both behavior change and weight loss in participating congregants.
Faith-based institutions are key partners in the effort to counteract obesity and prevent diabetes. Pastors, as leaders in their community, have a unique ability to speak to their congregations about the importance of eating healthy and exercising. Because churches engage in many community events, as well as provide meals to their congregants, they are able to influence what kind of food is served and encourage churchgoers to use healthy cooking methods at home. In a similar way, exercise and/or diabetes management programs conducted in a church setting or with spiritual elements provide a familiar background or context to people starting a new activity. The built-in support of the church community is a crucial part of encouraging congregants to continue to eat healthy and to follow exercise regimens.
Battling the obesity epidemic in our communities requires a multi-pronged approach and investment from all parts of the community. Faith-based institutions and their leaders are a critical piece in bringing the message of healthy living to community members. The example that the pastors in the Mississippi Delta and those in Bronx Health REACH’s Faith-Based Outreach Initiative have set is one that can and should be followed in faith communities throughout the country.