A Campaign That Seeks Huge Losses (Of Weight)

Veronica Carter of Washington listens at the kickoff of the 50 Million Pound Challenge, which featured entertainment and health screenings.
Veronica Carter of Washington listens at the kickoff of the 50 Million Pound Challenge, which featured entertainment and health screenings. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

It was the kind of weather that gets you going whether you like it or not, which is exactly what organizers of the 50 Million Pound Challenge wanted to see yesterday on the Mall.

If only to fight off the unseasonably frigid air, hundreds of people hoping to embark on a healthier lifestyle took to their feet when gospel great Yolanda Adams beckoned.

"I know it's cold," she told them, "but if you do what I say . . . it won't be that cold."

With a little help from her stirring voice, Adams soon had nearly everyone up and out of their seats, shaking off the shivers and perhaps a pound or two, which was why they were there.

"Now don't tell me you can't work out," Adams said.

Spearheaded by Ian Smith, a doctor and fitness guru, the 50 Million Pound Challenge is a national campaign underwritten by State Farm Insurance Co. to improve the health of African Americans.

Heart disease and diabetes are among the leading causes of death for African Americans. If that is to change, public health experts say, people must exercise more and eat better, which is easier said than done, given the dearth of high-quality supermarkets and restaurants in poorer black communities.

With the 50 Million Pound Challenge, organizers hope to rally African Americans to trim waistlines by keeping tabs on their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index and by trimming some of the fat out of their diets.

There was entertainment on stage -- including rap legends Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie and R&B artists Omarion and Kelly Price (who pledged to drop 20 pounds) -- and education offstage.

Under one tent, where the line stretched out into the cold, people were having their blood pressure and body mass index measured. For more than a few, the results added to their motivation.

"It wasn't good, either of them," Gwen Trowell of Southeast said while leaving the tent where she had been screened.

But that wasn't much of a surprise to Trowell, who is 46 and works as a records assistant at a law firm. A number of her health problems, she said, can be traced to her weight, which is why she had already decided to do something about it.

"I'm getting back into a healthy life -- exercise, live right, eat right," she said, with her 4-year-old grandson, Rashawn, a few steps ahead of her.

Under a nearby tent, people clustered around laptops to sign up for the 50 Million Pound Challenge. At one station, a volunteer helped Vivian Brown Penda.

"I need to be healthy, and I'm working on it," said Penda, 68, who lives in Northeast. "I thought this would help me."

Chronic health conditions are all too common, she said. "It's because of the way we eat."

Penda, a retired federal worker, hopes to change her diet and shed some of the extra weight she said she's carrying.

But don't ask her what her target is.

"I'm not going to just say how much I need to lose," she said. "I need to lose quite a bit."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company