Yet with an average high temperature of just 28 degrees in January and February the people of Burlington, Vermont aren’t interested in excuses.
Burlington was dubbed the healthiest city in a recent Centers for Disease Control survey. Everyday Christian has reported how Christ Temple Church in Huntington, West Virginia has responded to its designation as the unhealthiest U.S. city in the survey with a massive congregation-wide weight loss effort.
The city of Burlington as a whole and Burlington’s First United Methodist Church in particular may already have some of the answers the folks in Huntington–and elsewhere in the U.S.–are searching for.
“With the long winter we have, you have to be out in the cold, you can’t fight it,” Burlington mayor Bob Kiss explained.
As a matter of fact, citizens of Burlington embrace their environment in more ways than one.
“We live in a part of New England where people really take individual responsibility for how they live their lives,” said Richard Hibbert, senior pastor at Burlington FUMC. “The folks in our church are very, very aware of taking care of the life that God has entrusted to them.”
Burlington is located on the shore of Lake Champlain between the Adirondack and Green mountain ranges. It has plentiful cross-country skiing, hiking and biking trails. It is completely deliberate and part and parcel of the local culture.
“From what I got out of the CDC assessment the majority of people in Burlington felt they were healthy or very healthy,” Kiss said. “People in Burlington tend to have a very optimistic view of the world and that may be an expression of good health.”
Good health in Burlington is as pervasive as some of the prevalent negative health habits in Huntington that led the CDC to point out that city’s problems with obesity and tooth decay.
The study declared that 92 percent of Burlington residents feel they are in good health.
“Vermonters in general take a lot of responsibility for their self-care and are very aware of the need to care for their neighbors,” Hibbert said. “People here are willing to help in a time of need.”
Helping each other doesn’t translate into extra helpings of food, either shared or individually.
Kiss gained greater perspective on the differences between Burlington and other places in the United States through his and a friend’s travels related to Oklahoma City.
“It’s almost as if there is a different measurement of food elsewhere,” he said. “For example, I had a friend who went to Oklahoma City and was amazed at the portions that were served when he went out to eat.”
This dovetailed on Kiss’ attendance at the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington where he discussed health issues with Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett. Cornett challenged residents to change their ways and collectively lose one million pounds. Cornett lost nearly 30 pounds himself as the initiative, which was launched in January 2008, has picked up more than 27,000 participants who have lost 347,000 pounds.
“From meeting the mayor and taking seriously what he saw as a problem with obesity and what my friend saw, there was a connection there for me,” Kiss said. “It showed there really are regional differences how we treat food.”
Burlington also takes advantage of a local food program, Intervale Community Farm, which grows organic produce and sells it in the area. The locally grown produce is enjoyed by residents and purchased by a local hospital.
“The idea of locally grown food and awareness of food is something that has caught on here,” Kiss said. “Our schools have done a great job catching on with it, talking to the kids about what foods they like and what are healthy choices.”
The sense of self-care and community-wide care is ingrained among residents, Hibbert said.
“Living in the Champlain Valley there is a real sense of a place here that is special,” Hibbert said. “Folks want to take care of the environment and of themselves. We are a city full of walkers, cyclists, hikers and skiers. We have folks from our congregation who hike together. We have one gentleman who arranges hikes on different small mountains. It’s part of the identity of who we are as a church.”
From a faith standpoint, Vermont’s independence may have helped it rank at the bottom of a recent national survey of religious affiliation. Thirty-four percent of Vermonters did not affiliate themselves with a religious group. As pastor, it’s a concern for Hibbert, but he has no designs on moving because of it.
“Burlington is a magnet for people who want to come into this type of community and experience all that it has to offer,” he said. “We’ve had other distinctions like this in the last few years, being named one of the best places to live in the U.S. The joke is, ‘Don’t tell too many people about it, they’ll all want to come here.’ “
City of Burlington: http://www.ci.burlington.vt.us/
Burlington First United Methodist Church: http://www.fumcburlington.org/
Intervale Community Farm: http://www.intervalecommunityfarm.com/
Oklahoma City weight loss program: http://www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com/