Before Myers Park High School senior Jessica Harris knew about the growing rate of obesity in the country, she witnessed its effects firsthand when she saw her uncle during the holidays.
I didnt understand why he had diabetes, but I did see how it affected him, like having to put a needle in his skin every day and not being able to eat certain things that we all enjoy, said Harris.
As she got older, she learned more about the connection between her uncles condition and unhealthy eating habits earlier in life. That revelation led her in part to get involved with Youth Empowered Solutions, an organization that helps youths make changes in their communities.
On Sunday, members of Youth Empowered Solutions, including Harris, helped organize a youth panel discussion about how to prevent obesity during the Southern Obesity Summit.
On Monday, mayors from several southern cities, including Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, will hold a panel discussion on obesity.
Now in its sixth year, the three-day Southern Obesity Summit aims to raise awareness about healthy eating habits and ways that people improve access to healthy food in their communities, said Katherine Randall, spokeswoman for Youth Empowered Solutions, which is hosting the summit along with the Texas Health Institute.
And for the first time this year, the summit focused on what youths can do to help fight obesity.
Harris said she was excited that young people participated this year. After all, she said, obesity affects all ages, and healthy habits should start early to be most effective.
Four southern states (Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia and Alabama) have the highest obesity rates in the country, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Mississippi, 34.9 percent of the residents are considered obese.
North Carolina ranks 17th in the country, with 29.1 percent of adults considered obese.
Katie Spears, a team leader for Youth Empowered Solutions, said that in many Southern states, eating is an important part of the culture.
In the South, food is the center of our faith, our community and our families, she said.
Southerners can become healthier while keeping their cultural traditions intact by changing the way they prepare their foods, said Spears.
If Americans dont change their eating habits, the obesity epidemic will only grow, she said.
For instance, in its F as in Fat report, the Trust for Americas Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that 13 states 10 of which are in the South could have obesity rates higher than 60 percent by 2030 if trends continue.
Obesity is much more than a health issue, added Spears. For instance, it has economic ramifications because an increase in obesity often translates into rising health care costs. Obesity also affects social norms and how people see themselves, she said.
During Sundays youth town hall panel at Charlotte Marriott City Center, sustainable food advocate Birke Baehr, 13, joined four other young people to discuss real food, active living, youth empowerment and solutions to the obesity epidemic.
Later, during a dinner for 40 youths from across the South, Food Babe blogger Vani Hari and Baehr delivered a reception dinner keynote address.
On Monday, Foxx will join three other mayors Terry Bellamy of Asheville, Chip Johnson of Hernando, Miss., and Karl Dean of Nashville to discuss strategies for reducing and preventing obesity in their communities.
More than 350 health care professionals, policymakers, federal and state government officials and community members from 16 Southern states are expected to attend.
Harris said she hopes the summit encourages people to create healthier lifestyles.
The social norm is to pig out, but thats not what were supposed to be doing, said Harris.
If youre not putting good stuff in your body, then good stuff is not going to come out.