Meet The Be Healthy Team: Emily Murphy

Throughout 2023, Be Healthy’s fifth and final year of this five-year cooperative agreement with the Center for Disease Control’s HOP (High Obesity Program), we will be releasing quarterly conversations with core team members, where they will share insight into the projects we have the privilege of supporting, reflect on their findings, and make strides to continue increasing access to healthy foods and physical activity in West Virginia. 

This is the first installment of our Meet the Team series, featuring Emily Murphy, Principal Investigator for Be Healthy. 

For the last decade, Emily Murphy, Principal Investigator, has been an essential member of West Virginia’s High Obesity Program core team and its efforts to make healthy foods and physical activity opportunities more accessible in West Virginian communities. 

Since joining WV’s HOP project, Murphy, who is an Associate Professor of Health and Well-Being at WVU’s College of Applied Human Sciences, has brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. 

West Virginia University is one of 15 land-grant institutions who partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to receive funding in the High Obesity Program (HOP). HOP programs take place in counties with adult obesity rates of 40% or higher.

The five-year HOP cooperative agreement enables us to partner with and support new and existing local efforts that make safe physical activity spaces, fresh foods, and nutrition resources available in communities where they are limited. So far, Murphy has been involved in two HOP cycles. 

Murphy said her lifelong passion for health and wellness, as well as her love for community engagement, led her to get involved with Be Healthy. Previously, she had served as a WVU Extension Obesity Prevention Specialist. 

“My area of interest is really just working to make the communities throughout West Virginia, healthier places to live, work and play,” Murphy said. “I know, that sounds cliche, but really focusing on trying to make those environments, policies, and systems healthier so that people have better access to physical activity and food access. Making the healthy choice the easy choice for people in a variety of different settings.”

West Virginia University’s first HOP project, the Healthy Children Project, began in 2013. The Healthy Children Project focused on early childcare and educational settings in Barbour, Gilmer, and Pleasants Counties. Murphy said that project involved supporting the installations of new natural playgrounds and water fountains at several public schools.

As a pediatric exercise physiologist by trade, Murphy said she felt in her element helping West Virginian youth build healthy habits through the first HOP project. 

“Behaviors are learned and then applied early in life, so the earlier you can really intervene, the greater your likelihood of preventing a myriad of things, including obesity and cardiovascular disease,” Murphy said. “So again, working with kids is kind of my passion.”

The current HOP project, Be Healthy, which is in its fifth and final year, has focused on increasing access to fresh foods and physical activity opportunities in McDowell and Clay Counties. Over the course of this timeframe, we have had the privilege of supporting more than 40 projects in two of our state’s most rural counties. 

Often, Murphy said, Be Healthy projects expand beyond their intended reach, including the Big Otter Clinic’s walking trail. During the coronavirus pandemic, the clinic’s staff, led by Dr. Christine Jones, received Be Healthy funding to create a walking trail behind the clinic, where patients could walk as they waited on their appointment or even opt to walk and talk with their provider. 

Once the trail was complete, other community groups, including a local school’s special needs class, began to visit and enjoy the new addition. The following year, Be Healthy funding supported a gazebo shelter and landscaping, planting trees and flowers around the trail with the help of more than 20 WVU leaders and staff who volunteered with the annual Country Roads Tour event. 

“The Big Otter Clinic, that trail around there, with a fairly limited amount of money, just adds this really amazing component to that community,” Murphy said. “Not only for patients, but other people that can come and utilize that trail. And it’s become almost like a piece of art there as well.”

Another project that came to mind was the Mountaineer Food Bank, Murphy said. With support from Be Healthy, the food bank has restructured their ordering system to categorize foods into 3 categories: green (choose often), yellow (choose sometimes), and red (choose rarely). This change has enabled pantries who order from the food bank to choose healthier options for their clients, who are referred to as friends of the pantries. 

“As far as changing what people are ordering, eventually is going to trickle down to hopefully changing their health outcomes,” Murphy said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it’s going to take us a long time to get there. Our long-term goal is really making those individuals within the communities healthier, but again, you first have to change intent, and then change behaviors, and then the downstream-kind-of effect is the improvements in their health.”

Most importantly, participants will have the ability to choose. Often, residents in rural regions like Clay and McDowell Counties have limited access to grocery stores. Sometimes, the closest food source is a gas station or a dollar store. Living in a geographically-isolated, hilly area can also make it difficult to find safe, community-accessible spaces for residents to exercise and engage in physical activity. 

These challenges, she said, are just a few of the obstacles many families face, which is why Be Healthy aims to tailor projects to each community and their unique needs. Instead of looking at one issue up close, we have to see the big picture to find the best solutions. 

“Sometimes your project goals have to change,” Murphy said. “Not necessarily the goal, but the activities that you do have to change to meet people where they are. How can you incorporate healthy eating and food access, and increasing physical activity opportunities that are going to make some of these other kinds of hardships that people are facing easier as well? In some of those cases, we would do pop-up farmers markets at the early childcare centers, because transportation was an issue.” 

Being present and engaged is another key element in this process, she added. 

“I think you need to meet people where they are,” she said. “You have to show up. As far as our project is concerned, we don’t just channel money into the communities — we need to be present. We need to be part of the process, and we need to prove that we’re going to show up and be there. If I come in there, I’m there as part of the solution, and I’m there beside you. I’m not leading this in any way. We’re partners in this. It’s really important to be on an equal playing ground when you’re going in and you’re doing community work, too.” 

As illustrated by our project partners, access to grant-funded opportunities like the CDC’s HOP project can make a significant impact in a region. Some projects will require continuous support to stay afloat, like free produce bag programs or flower box maintenance. Additional funding can help make them sustainable long-term. 

“There are health disparities and health equity issues across different areas of America, but rural, low income communities are faced with a variety of different health disparities and health equity issues,” she said. “That additional funding from these kinds of federal organizations are going to help address the issues.”

Though each project is fueled by the “power of partnerships,” Murphy said none of these efforts would be possible without passionate local leadership. 

“All these different levels of partnerships and collaborations make the magic happen,” Murphy said. “So it’s not, you know, like one organization doing the work. It’s all of us together making an impact. That power of partnership is really kind of like the overall theme that makes our initiative successful.”

Murphy said at this stage in our final year of HOP funding, she has learned so much from working with the communities as they’ve brought their visions to life. More people are involved in more efforts, and the collective impact is making waves. Murphy said she feels proud of what the Be Healthy team and community groups have accomplished so far, and she looks forward to all that they will achieve in the future. 

“That’s what’s important to me,” Murphy said. “Making my little piece of the world a better place for future generations.”