MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
The average life expectancy for men in Holmes County, Mississippi, is 65 years. That's a full 10 years less than the nationwide average. So what's killing people in Holmes County? Researchers say it's no coincidence the county is also one of Mississippi's poorest and most obese. The obesity rate for adults there is 42 percent. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been visiting Holmes County as part of our series Living Large: Obesity in America.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Calvin Head doesn't have to see the statistics on paper. He saw the problem firsthand when he was Holmes County's Transportation Director. The school buses were overcrowded, but there were not more students.
CALVIN HEAD: And there was the cost. The kids had gotten so obese that there was no more than three to a seat because I have, in most cases, two to a seat.
ELLIOTT: Head now leads a farmers' co-op in Mileston. It's a tiny rural community in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The flat, fertile flood plain known as much for its entrenched poverty as for its prized cotton. He says in recent years, the overweight kids weren't only crowding the school buses, but the medical clinics, too.
HEAD: They were having health issues that normally, you would think, would be associated with older people, but you've got a 10 year old with diabetes and stuff like that. We knew that there was a trend developing that was a frightening trend.
ELLIOTT: A trend that was affecting his own family. Meet his niece, Valerie Moore.
VALERIE MOORE: I am five feet tall and I weigh 241 pounds.
ELLIOTT: Moore is just 28 years old, but has the medicine cabinet of a senior citizen.
MOORE: Right now, I have various health problems. I have high blood pressure. I had tests ran for being a diabetic and I have to take high blood pressure pills. I've been taking them since I was, like, 20.
ELLIOTT: Even with the meds, Moore's weight and poor eating habits caught up with her two years ago. She woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't feel her left side.
MOORE: I thought I was going to die.
ELLIOTT: At just 26 years old, she was having a stroke.
MOORE: And that really, really would change anybody's mind about what you eat and how much of what you eat.
ELLIOTT: She's shed more than 70 pounds since, but still has a long way to go.
MOORE: This is the freezer.
ELLIOTT: In her kitchen, the unemployed single mother says it's a constant struggle to put together wholesome meals for her two children.
MOORE: I have some healthy food under there somewhere, but I have some pizza and stuff like for a snack when they get off the school bus and I have broccoli.
ELLIOTT: Her 12-year-old daughter is already obese, but her younger son is a more healthy weight. As the nation confronts an obesity crisis, officials are trying to get families to make healthier choices, but for low income people like Valerie Moore, it's not so much about nutrition planning as it is stretching a tight budget.
MOORE: If you have two children to feed and you only have but $5, you're going to go and try to get a whole meal for the money that you have; therefore, you might have to buy something that's not as healthy as you want it to be in order for you and your children to have something to eat.
ELLIOTT: And that's where the Mileston Cooperative Association comes in.
GRIFFIN MCLAURIN: I grow peas, butter beans, sweet potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, collard greens, mustard greens.
ELLIOTT: Griffin McLaurin has converted 15 acres of his family farm to grow organic produce. The co-op markets it locally and provides fresh food to regional nutrition programs. African American cotton and soy boy growers here banded together to form the Mileston Co-Op back in 1942. Now, the mostly older farmers are trying to reconnect young people to the land.
MCLAURIN: Every generation is getting weaker and wider, but the things here on the Earth is the things that you're surrounding. See, most of them don't know nothing about their surroundings. See, we had to fish, we had to hunt, we had to do all of that when we come up, but now, children - that don't ring a bell with them. Hopefully, we can turn it around.
ELLIOTT: McLaurin, who is 70, is using the same organic techniques his parents used in the family vegetable garden when he was a boy; techniques, he says, that were abandoned when Delta farmers turned to chemical pesticides and fertilizers to maximize cotton yields.
Co-Op Director Calvin Head says given the lush, fertile land of the Mississippi Delta, children in Holmes County should be eating healthy, fresh produce every day and turning around a reputation as the most obese place in the country.
HEAD: The idea behind the farm initiative is to get people to simply understand what they're eating and where it's coming from and what impact it's having upon us.
ELLIOTT: Deep down, his niece Valerie Moore knows this, but says it's hard to put into practice.
MOORE: I go in the produce section sometimes, but I'm not going to even lie to you. Most of the time, I don't even go over there because it all depends on how much money I have.
ELLIOTT: It's still cheaper, she says, to pick up a can of processed corn than to buy four ears of fresh picked. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
NORRIS: And you can hear more stories from NPR's Living Large series at NPR.org and also watch a video about obesity in Holmes County.