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Mecklenburg County Healthy Living Program Wins National Award

Alex Olgin

A Mecklenburg County program that works with churches to help people live healthier lifestyles gained national recognition Tuesday. It came with a $500,000 award from the Aetna Foundation.

The Village HeartBEAT program has helped lower smoking and obesity rates in Mecklenburg County. For that, it’s one of the Aetna Foundations Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge winners.

Foundation President Dr. Garth Graham said the program will be a model.

“When we looked at some of the CDC data, we were able to see some of the impact that you were all doing,” he said.

Since 2016, county smoking rates dropped from 17 percent to 14 percent, and obesity rates in the county went from 70 percent to 65 percent. Graham said one of the goals of this challenge was to identify best practices that could be rolled out in other communities.

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He said the program is addressing the "kinds of things that, quite frankly, are a big challenge for us at the national level."

The chronic conditions, like smoking and obesity, disproportionally impact black and Hispanic communities in Mecklenburg County. So, the network of 60 churches reaches those communities to educate congregants on healthy eating and exercise.

One of the original members is Faith Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in northeast Charlotte. Pastor Sandra Gripper said now they serve more baked foods instead of fried foods, and have weekly Zumba classes. Gripper also said the regular blood pressure and blood sugar checks have helped her get her diabetes under control.

“As a pastor, we eat out all the time, but I decided I’m going to get my people to live healthy,” Gripper said, “I changed my eating habits and my way of life.”

The county said the $500,000 will be used to help combat heart disease in the community.