By Ross Brenneman
The American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation held a joint conference in Washington yesterday about fighting obesity in America. The conference, “Signs of Progress,” highlighted 11 areas in the United States with declining obesity rates, with teams of panelists and keynote speakers brought in from those places to discuss successes.
The “why” of the conference is plain and simple: Obesity is an epidemic. Physicians now classify it as a disease. Two-thirds of the United States is overweight. According to a June 2013 United Nations report, among populous nations, the United States trails only Mexico in adult obesity rates, and that itself is only a recent development.
“Obesity is not an adjective. It is a disease that leads to a lot of other diseases,” Jamie Jeffrey, a West Virginia pediatrician, said in a conference panel. “Everyone has to be on the same page. Obesity is a disease.”
During one of the panels, an audience member asked what, exactly, is the goal of those fighting obesity.
Nancy Brown, the chief executive officer of the American Heart Association, responded that her organization has set benchmark goals that include putting obesity on the decline nationwide by 2015.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey later added that goals should be quantitative and achievable, rather than vague expectations.
“Of course, we can set national goals … But I think the important point is that it’s important to set local goals,” she said.
If there’s one common thread among the places highlighted at the conference, it’s a sense of having collective responsibility for obesity at the community level and enacting specific ideas to create progress. After all, federal money often comes with strings attached, and states aren’t spectacularly charitable right now.
Among the locations touted for their work: Anchorage, Alaska; California; Eastern Massachusetts; Kearney, Neb.; Mississippi; New Mexico; New York City; Philadelphia; Vance and Granville Counties, N.C.; and West Virginia.
One of the conference’s keynote speakers, New York City Health Commissioner Tom Farley, touted his city’s now-infamous ban on large containers of pop. The city also created standards for catering at government functions, so that nongovernmental organizations can have an easily accessible set of nutritional guidelines should they so choose.
The other keynote speaker, Chip Johnson, the mayor of Hernando, Miss., chided his state legislature for enacting a law that prevents the same kind of ban that New York City implemented. Legislators created the law in response to New York’s law, and Johnson has been a vocal critic.
“Preemption is a bad thing all the way around,” he said, arguing that communities need every tool available to fight obesity.
A year from now, other places may be highlighted at this kind of conference, too. The Washington Post, for instance, has a hefty story about a modified school bus making the rounds in Tennessee, offering free meals to children out of school for the summer. For many, it will be their only balanced meal of the day. Indeed, summer is a nutritional vacuum, with the full burden of eating often shifted onto parents. For children in poverty, that often portends high-calorie cheap eating.
The conference offered several suggestions for places looking to improve nutrition, in and out of school: Don’t use food as a reward for behavior. Promote local parks. Don’t take away recess as a punishment. (And don’t dismiss structured recess out of hand.) Get local businesses interested in fitness and make them aware that healthy employees are productive employees. Be open to anyone who has a passion to help.
And, Farley emphasized, be ready for pushback.
“If you’re going to be making progress, you need to be prepared for conflict,” he said.
Lavizzo-Mourey echoed the sentiment.
“The common good can come out of conflict. Let’s not shy away from it.”
This is a chart of developed countries, plus Mexico, to provide a fuller picture: