The Central Valley is surrounded by rich farmland, best known for producing milk, almonds, walnuts and chicken.
Despite the fields of fresh produce steps from our front doors, too many of our kids and adults are not eating right and, as a result, are battling obesity.
The almonds and walnuts, it seems, often don't stand a chance next to prepackaged and processed foods and sugary drinks crowding shelf space in grocery stores. On top of that, there aren't always enough outdoor places for children or adults to burn the excess calories they consume.
The result is that our community, like many others, is facing a growing obesity epidemic.
The epidemic appears to be worse, though, in Stanislaus County, as the overall obesity rate has increased 56 percent from 2001 to 2009, more than double the rate for the rest of the state. It is estimated that more than 65 percent of Stanislaus County adults are overweight or obese, while more than 34 percent of the county's fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders are in an unhealthy weight range, according to the 2011 public health report released by the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency.
Every day, our physicians and medical personnel see how poor diet, inactivity and excess weight lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, to name a few of obesity's health consequences.
Fortunately, research shows that healthy eating and active living can help keep people at healthy weights and help prevent or curb obesity-related diseases and that's why Kaiser Permanente is working to build a healthier community.
We have awarded Modesto a $1 million, three-year Healthy Eating Active Living grant to help residents particularly those in west Modesto eat better and move more. This new grant continues Kaiser Permanente's support that started six years ago with an investment of $1.5 million.
By the end of 2013, Kaiser Permanente's grant aims to make several community improvements, such as a sustainable community agriculture program that will provide bi-weekly produce baskets for low-income families.
The grant supports the completion of the half-mile Helen White Memorial Walking Trail in west Modesto, a part of the city where obesity rates are higher and where there is a lack of recreational space. This trail will provide a safe walking route to and from Franklin Elementary, Mark Twain Junior High and Modesto High School.
Kaiser Permanente is also a sponsor of "Weight of the Nation," an HBO documentary that is the centerpiece of a national public-awareness campaign on obesity. In the fall, Kaiser Permanente will host local screenings of this documentary, and we hope they will help accelerate efforts to combat obesity including a citywide resolution that will create more space for exercise and easier access to fresh produce.
Everyone can help create an environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice. In homes where junk food consumption and sitting around are rituals, parents can set a better example. Teachers and school administrators can also reinforce healthy behaviors.
In the meantime, here are some healthy steps anyone can start immediately. Reach for water over soda. Start walking. Make nutritious meals using the same local fruits and vegetables that we proudly ship around the globe.
Every little bit helps.
We know changes will not happen overnight, but we also know that by working together, we can improve the health and well-being of our community for years to come.
Harper is the senior vice president-area manager for Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan in the Central Valley Area.