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Panel Explores Innovative Strategies to Support Healthy Lifestyles in America’s Cities

January 28, 2013


NBCNews.com senior health writer Maggie Fox moderated the panel discussion on “Supporting Healthy Lifestyles with Community-Based Solutions” that featured mayors from four cities sharing their best practices and innovative approaches to helping citizens and city employees alike lead healthier lives. The discussion was sponsored by Weight Watchers International.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It long frustrated Rawlings-Blake that despite being home to world-class health institutions, her city was also home to rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease significantly higher than the national average. But before addressing the issue, the city needed to understand the scope of the problem. A city-wide health assessment was conducted, which found that in some zip codes, people lived well into their eighties; in others, people lived only into their sixties.

These findings led to the development of Healthy Baltimore 2015, the city’s comprehensive health policy agenda for the city. The plan highlights areas that represent the greatest potential impact on improving the quality of life for city residents. It’s worth noting that the plan was developed not simply for the city’s residents, but by them as well—city officials took the plan into neighborhoods and allowed communities to determine which health issues should be priorities for them.

Rawlings-Blake also highlighted Baltimarket—The Virtual Supermarket Program (VSP), an innovative, award-winning program that uses an online grocery ordering/delivery system to bring food to Baltimore neighborhoods with low-vehicle ownership and little access to healthy foods (commonly called food deserts). The VSP allows neighborhood residents to place grocery online orders at local library branches and other venues. Residents pick up their order weekly at their community site, and the delivery cost is paid by the Health Department. Mayor Rawlings-Blake noted that it’s the only program in the nation that allows residents to pay for groceries online using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett

In Spring 2007, Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Oklahoma City eighth on its list of America’s fattest cities. This was one ranking that Cornett found embarrassing, and determined to lead by example, he addressed his own weight issue first, losing 40 pounds over 40 weeks. But in order to address the issue citywide he needed the city as a whole to start talking about obesity and healthy living in general. Cornett came up with an unconventional idea to jump'start the conversation. Standing in front of the elephant exhibit at the local zoo, he proposed that the city go on a diet, and collectively lose one million pounds.

Over the next four years, approximately 47,000 people visited the city website designed for the campaign. The city tracked the weight loss of each individual; as of January 2012 the city had achieved its goal, collectively losing over one million pounds. The initiative cost the city nothing. The resources to develop the campaign website were donated by a private entity, and Cornett leveraged free and earned media to promote the initiative.

Beyond this, Cornett was able to leverage momentum from the campaign to get citizens to vote to support and fund community improvements that he believes they wouldn’t have otherwise. Those initiatives include building new gym facilities in all inner city grade schools, new sidewalks throughout the city, over 100 miles of jogging trails, and a downtown central park over 70 acres in size. The impact has been significant. One sign of progress—the March 2012 issue of Men’s Fitness ranked Oklahoma City number 23 on its 2012 list of the fittest cities in America.

Asheville (NC) Mayor Terry Bellamy

In one low-income neighborhood adjacent to the city limits, residents couldn’t allow their kids to walk to school—without sidewalks, it just wasn’t safe. That’s when the city applied for and received a Safe Routes to School grant to put in sidewalks, allowing children and parents from the neighborhood to walk to and from the school with ease. The transformation in that community was so significant that they did the same thing in a second community. Asheville has taken this transformation a step further, by adopting a “complete streets” policy, in order to enable safe, attractive, and comfortable access and travel for all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists as well as motorists and public transportation users.

Other city programs focus on providing increased access to fruits and vegetables to children and residents at large. Through a school garden program, kids can take home the healthy fruits and vegetables that they grow. Asheville also amended its city ordinance to allow every church and school the opportunity to operate a “tailgate market,” where producers can sell directly to the public in accordance with applicable regulations– without barriers from city hall.

Asheville’s health and wellness strategies extend to city employees as well. Upon discovering that twenty percent of city employees accounted for eighty percent of health care costs, the city instituted an employee wellness program that’s since been replicated in various cities across the nation. Bellamy is especially proud of the fact that all of these initiatives enjoy broad-based support throughout the community.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

Fischer notes that Louisville has a strong food and beverage “culture”—it’s vital to the local economy and accounts for a large part of the city’s GDP. The city consumes about $3 billion per year in food—about twenty percent of that, $600 million, is a demand for local food. To meet this need, Fischer is working with local farmers in the surrounding region, connecting them with industrial and education large volume users to build a healthy, sustainable local food economy.

In addition to macro initiatives like these, Fischer also stressed the importance of taking action at the individual level. As an example, he cited Louisville Youth Advocates, a group of young leaders from a disadvantaged part of the city. The group conducted an assessment of their community’s needs, and identified a need for healthy local fruits and vegetables. To make this happen, the city partnered with YMCA to develop “Healthy in a Hurry” corner markets—people can walk to their local corner store to purchase fruits and vegetables.

The program has had, as Fischer puts it, a triple impact—the young people grow the food themselves and sell it directly to the corner stores. Thus, through this program youth are learning not only how to be effective community advocates but also how to grow food, and how to run a business.

During the panel Weight Watchers International CEO David Kirchhoff announced the Healthy Communities Grant Program, a new joint initiative with the Conference of Mayors to curb the national obesity epidemic and foster healthy lifestyles in communities. Through this pilot initiative, $1 million worth of Weight Watchers support services will be provided to three cities, one large, one medium, one small—that have existing healthy lifestyle programming, to help them build upon successful strategies for healthy eating, physical activity, and weight loss and management. For more information on this new initiative, contact Crystal Swann on the Conference of Mayors staff at cswann@usmayors.org.