Fighting obesity on a budget: How a Nashville nonprofit helps low-income women live more healthful lives

Editor’s note: During each Chips Quinn orientation and multimedia training in Nashville, Tenn., scholars are required to complete a mobile media reporting module, which includes producing videos and reporting and writing stories. Their work is displayed here.

by Aneri Pattani

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ten months ago, Janelle Grant nearly died in her sleep. Her oxygen levels dropped dramatically and her lips turned blue. She was taken to the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital, where she woke up 24 hours later from a near comatose state. The doctor told her she might not live another year.

Her only hope was to lose weight.

At 34, Grant stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 360 pounds. Her body mass index was 63.8 – more than double the threshold for obesity.

“I got to the point where I was scared to sleep at night because I thought I might not wake up,” Grant said.

She’d tried fitness programs and diets in the past, everything from Atkins to Weight Watchers. She’d even gone through the process to become a contestant on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” before deciding against it. But nothing seemed to stick.

Most of these programs were laser-focused on shedding pounds and hitting the gym. They didn’t provide the holistic support Grant needed. As someone who had lost her father when she was 7 years old, had struggled with her weight since she was 18, and was living in Nashville on a special-education instructor’s salary, Grant needed more than a diet.

Once she was released from the hospital, Grant turned to her last resort: bariatric surgery. Weeks before the scheduled surgery, her boss told her about The New Beginnings Center, completely changing her path forward.

The Nashville-based nonprofit helps low-income women lead healthy lifestyles and combat obesity by providing a 12-week training program with fitness and nutrition classes, as well as life coaching. For women like Grant, whose household income falls below 150 percent of the low-income limits established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program is free.

Research has shown that people in lower income brackets and often those in minority communities face greater challenges in accessing affordable, healthful food. They often turn to fast food restaurants, which are cheap and tend to proliferate in low-income areas. The result of living in a “food desert” is a population that experiences obesity at a higher rate than average and falls victim to chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Grant’s community is no exception. In 2015, Nashville was ranked the fifth unhealthiest city in the country in a study by BetterDoctor.com. Tennessee has the sixth highest rate of adult obesity in the nation, and women are worse off than men, according to the 2017 State of Obesity report, published by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.

The New Beginnings Center aims to turn the tide by empowering women – regardless of race or economic circumstance – to live more healthfully. Since it launched in 2012, the program has graduated more than 1,000 women, who have on average lost 7.4 percent of their body weight and decreased their BMI by 3 points, according to center officials.

Misty Stevenson (left) and Karrie Balbach prepare for a circuit training workout at The New Beginnings Center in Nashville, Tenn., last May. (Photo by Aneri Pattani)

These women face countless obstacles, yet still make incredible progress, center President and CEO Tash Weddle said.

“These are women who are working hard, but either aren’t making ends meet or they can barely make ends meet,” she said. “They’re raising kids or grandkids. They’re tired. They’ve never taken care of themselves. They’ve taken care of everybody else, and they’ve never done something like this for themselves.”

Today, Grant proudly counts herself among those women. Four weeks after joining the program, she canceled her surgery. Nine months later, she has lost 110 pounds.

More important, Grant said, the program has taught her sustainable ways to live with good health as a priority. Instead of eating fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Grant now checks the group’s Facebook page for easy, nutritious recipes recommended by other members.

The program also partners with local farmers markets that accept the federal government’s supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits to have fresh produce delivered on Saturdays, where women can pick it up after class.

“You can make pennies and (the program) still teaches you how to eat in a way that you can afford it,” Grant said.

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