Zakayia Spence lined up with a couple dozen other kids to file into the gym during summer camp at the Colleton County Recreation Center in Walterboro.
This town markets itself as the “the front porch to the Lowcountry” to show off its Antebellum charm. But away from downtown Walterboro's picturesque and historic homes, the community struggles with high poverty, unemployment and poor health.
Nine-year-old Zakayia illustrates the problem. She carries too much body weight, but enjoys learning at the recreation center how exercise and proper eating can help her lose pounds.
For her, it's not just a matter of eating healthy and losing weight: Camp officials said she developed Type 2 diabetes from excess weight and a bad diet.
She's among what health officials see as an epidemic of overweight children with the potentially life-threatening disease.
If the trend continues, state health officials estimate that one-third of the children born in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes.
Catherine Templeton took over last year as director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control. She concedes that her health department had done little to combat obesity other than talk about it, even though the medical and other consequences of obesity threaten to cost the billions of dollars.
To combat what many call the state's biggest health problem, the state health department has put up virtually no state money. Almost all of the approximately $6 million spent on fighting obesity since 2008 came from the federal government, a department spokesman said.
Templeton plans to change that, not with more state money, but by changing priorities.
She has centralized its administration and made fighting obesity the main focus.
“It is, or creates, all problems, you name it,” she said. It kills the most South Carolinians, makes the most sick, and a significant reduction of it would save the state the most money.
To help tackle that, she plans to redirect some federal grant money the department oversees. Most of that is likely to come from $4.6 million in yearly federal grants for the community transformation program. She would try to give some of the money to groups or agencies that come up with effective methods to fight obesity while continuing to address the problemsdesignated by the grants.
She intends to leave much of the hands-on anti-obesity work to the nonprofits, public schools and other local groups that have been leading the fight. But, she said, the state needs to act as a central conduit to organize the pieces. She launched an effort to do that late last year by convening a meeting of many of the involved groups and individuals.
“All around the state people are doing things in small pockets,” Templeton said. “It's fabulous, but there are a lot of lessons that have to be brought to the table” to create an effective state-wide effort.
Iris Edwards, a special-education teacher in the Colleton County public schools, has worked in education for more than 26 years. She can see the results of poor diets in lethargic eyes when kids sit down at their desks.
Edwards keeps healthy snacks handy to perk them up. “When you have children who aren't healthy, they can't think right,” she said.
This past summer, the camp teamed up with Colleton County's chapter of Eat Smart Move More to make the children aware of what they eat and what they should eat.
Melissa Buckner, Eat Smart's Colleton County director, said the camp is one of several efforts to combat obesity launched with the help of schools, churches, businesses and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an anti-child-obesity nonprofit founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and William J. Clinton Foundation.
The state health department gives moral support to Eat Smart, but much of the work in Colleton County would have been impossible without the backing of a more than $800,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, Buckner said. The grant also helps support the organization's preliminary efforts to go statewide with the lessons learned in Colleton.
Colleton ranks among the unhealthiest counties in a state ranked the fifth least-healthy nationally. Two out of three South Carolinians tip the scales as overweight or obese,
If the Colleton effort succeeds, it is expected to serve as a model for similar programs across the state, Buckner said.
A grin spreads across Zakayia's face as she talks about some of the health changes she has made in her life, and how she's trying to help her grandmother get healthier.
Instead of sugary drinks, she said, “I drink more water.” And she pushes her grandmother to eat better. “I told her she needs to quit eating candy and eating coffee cake in her car.”
In downtown Walterboro, not far from the summer camp, local farmers pull their pickup trucks into stalls at a new farmers market created by Buckner's Eat Smart to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the community's poor.
Jennifer Worthington, an Eat Smart instructor, mans a desk where shoppers exchange food stamps for tokens that they can spend as cash in the market.
Many poor people do not buy fresh fruit and vegetables at grocery store, because the produce tends to cost more than frozen or canned foods, and goes bad quickly. So Eat Smart arranged with the state for farmers to sell produce directly to people on food stamps.
Ezeria Mitchell, 33, of Jonesville, came to the market with her mother and daughter. After looking over the variety of produce, she selected several freshly cut ears of corn.
“I like getting it here, fresh out of the garden,” she said as she carried off her purchase.
Farmer Skippy Crosby likes the market as well. By making it possible for people on food stamps or vouchers to buy directly from the farmers, his customer base has jumped, he said. “It opened it up to everybody.”