Mayor Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville and Mayor Chip Johnson
Mayor Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville and Mayor Chip Johnson at the Southern Obesity Summit in Charlotte last week. Photo courtesy YES!

Leaders and community organizers gathered in Charlotte last week to trade successful strategies to reduce obesity in the South, the part of the U.S. with the highest overall rate of obesity.

By Beth Howard

Mayor Chip Johnson of Hernando, Miss. and YES! youth staff member Tyshaun Johnson at the Southern Obesity Summit in Charlotte last week. Photo courtesy: YES!

If communities in North Carolina want to tackle the growing obesity epidemic, they might be   wise to take a page from the playbook of cities like Charlotte and Asheville. In recent years, these city governments have spearheaded numerous efforts to encourage residents to eat a healthier diet:

  • More than 15 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools boast community gardens. Through a partnership between the school system, the county health department and local pizza purveyor, Fuel Pizza, last year kids at one of school, Winterfield Elementary, got lessons in growing produce and then using it to prepare healthier versions of their favorite food.
  • Asheville established a farmer’s market in one of the city’s “food deserts,” places where access to fresh foods is limited, and then launched a campaign reminding residents they can use their electronic benefit cards (EBT)―today’s version of food stamps―on produce at the market. Now more of these benefits are used at the farmer’s market than at grocery or convenience stores.
  • On Thursdays, a food truck called Friendship Gardens to Go sells fresh fruits and vegetables to residents making bus connections at Charlotte’s uptown transit center. “Our job is to set it up so it’s easy for people to make good decisions,” said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Foxx and Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy were just two of the civic leaders on hand to share strategies and swap success stories at the 6th Annual Southern Obesity Summit, held in Charlotte, October 14-16. The event brought together more than 300 state and county health officials, representatives of non-profit and advocacy organizations, health care providers and policymakers from communities across the South to discuss the challenges of an increasingly overweight population.

The statistics on obesity in the South are sobering. Nine of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates are in the South, making the region ground zero.

“The South is the battleground where the fight is going to be won or lost,” said Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, TN. Not only does traditional Southern culture emphasize fatty and fried foods, but many of the region’s residents have low incomes, which makes them more vulnerable to health pitfalls like food deserts and close proximity to unhealthy fast food.

In North Carolina, two-thirds of all adults are overweight or obese and the state ranks 5th worst in the U.S. for childhood obesity. The state’s obesity rate has increased more than 80 percent over the last 15 years.

Success in unexpected places

Examples of successful anti-obesity efforts came from all regions, including the country’s most obese state, Mississippi. Business owner Chip Johnson tells of attending the first obesity  summit 2005, after he elected mayor of the small town of Hernando (pop. 15,000). There he learned that the epidemic was an obstacle to not only the state’s health but its economic prosperity.

Johnson established the city’s first Parks Department and revamped local parks. He instituted design standards requiring sidewalks and bike lanes on city streets and policies that require developers to devote 10 percent of their new projects to green space.

The city also started a farmer’s market close to low-income housing and a community garden. City government employees got free health screenings, exercise equipment and help with kicking the habit. After they signed pledges not to smoke, the city’s insurer dropped Hernando’s insurance premiums by $21,000. Overall Hernando, the county seat, has saved some $130,000 in health insurance costs.

“When you hear that this generation may be the first generation that does not live as long as their parents, there’s no way you can disregard that information,” Johnson said.  “Even though we now have the healthiest county in Mississippi, we look around and see all the things that we need to do and we’re not going to stop.”

Summit participants spent the better part of two days in sessions on topics that ranged from the cost of obesity to businesses to bicycle and greenway planning and the use of faith-based approaches to fighting obesity. In between sessions, they enjoyed stretch and exercise breaks.

Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C., the summit was jointly hosted by the Texas Health Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank on health care solutions, and Youth-Employed Solutions (YES!), a nonprofit organization with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville, through which youth advocate for teen health prevention issues.

For the first time, young people were participants at the meeting, sharing success stories of their own. At a Mayor’s Roundtable discussion on Monday, Jessica Harris, 16, a senior at Charlotte’s Myers Park High School, talked about getting the school’s cafeteria to offer more fresh fruit.

“We found some research that showed that people were more likely to pick up fresh fruit placed in baskets than fruit in cans,” Harris said. The school made the change. Such small, low-cost efforts can have a big impact, she said.

“Once you make better decisions at school, you will start making them at home,” she said.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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