BY LEON T. ANDREWS, Jr., Senior Fellow, National League of Cities
Not too long ago, managing obesity was seen solely as an individual responsibility. However, as obesity rates began their steady climb upward over the last decade or so, local leaders and residents began to understand more fully the risks obesity can pose to their neighborhoods, communities and cities, and the role good government policy and action can have in helping people get and stay healthy.
As this shift in public consciousness grew, mayors in cities across the country began to champion public policies that promote healthy eating and active living. These policies are meant to create more walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible neighborhoods, and to encourage better use of and increased connectivity between recreation centers and parks. They have commonly been implemented through shared-use agreements, land use agreements, community gardening initiatives and complete streets and active transportation policies. The most effective policies have been put in place by local leaders that were able to tap into specific community resources.
Clearly, mayors have an important role to play in forming partnerships and using their influence to put policies aimed at reducing obesity in motion. They are uniquely positioned to encourage citywide implementation of policies and programs that promote healthy communities.
Today, policies to increase healthy eating and active living are being implemented all across the country. For instance, in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has led a number of policies that have revamped how the city approaches public health through food financing. The mayor, his staff and partners have forged public-private partnerships and provided incentives resulting in almost 20 retail sites offering fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania and across the country, we’ve seen the Fresh Food Financing Initiative become a major model for assisting lower income people gain access to fresh, affordable food.
We’ve also seen shared-use agreements welcomed wholeheartedly in communities throughout the South. In larger southern cities, complete streets policies have been incredibly important, while in both large and smaller communities mayors have worked to maximize community gardens and farmers markets. In particular, mayors have embraced policies that require farmers markets to accept Women, Infants and Children and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
For example, in Mississippi, communities have particularly embraced land use protection for community gardens. And Jackson, Miss. is one of a few cities to really look at how their city is oriented and figure out ways to improve walking and biking.
There is similar work going on in Hernando and Tupelo, Miss., Charleston, S.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Baton Rouge, La. Some of these cities don’t get mentioned as often as they should, but they are definitely leading the way in making policy changes that result in healthier communities.
At the same time, while the creation and support for these polices are great wins in the battle against obesity, it’s unclear whether they are actually reaching and benefiting those in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Complete streets policies, for example, have helped cities redesign their downtown, but often left other neighborhoods — where more economically disadvantaged people reside – largely untouched.
The next step in the fight against obesity is moving from action to evaluating impact, i.e., making sure that health-promoting policies reach the communities that need them the most. There is far more to be done in this arena – mayors want to know how to target policies to ensure they are reaching their most vulnerable citizens.
Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet, but the conversations are happening and the wheels are starting to turn faster. And there is reason for optimism.
One notable example is Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC), which is focused on several important areas connected to health disparities, including: training early childcare and education providers to promote physical activity and healthy eating; providing healthy foods to school-aged children before, during and after school and/or during the summer; increasing access to healthy foods where cities offer and sell food; and ensuring appropriate city lands are optimized for play.
So far, 425 local elected officials are engaged in LMCTC and moving forward important policy work focused on children and vulnerable populations. Also, there is a strong southern presence – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and other states, which is particularly important given that region’s high obesity rates and poverty levels. These are exactly the places we need to reach to truly stem the tide of obesity.
LMCTC is just one opportunity for mayors to maximize their leadership and use their voice in addressing the health of their community, and, in particular, the health of vulnerable populations. When we talk about moving the needle, this is the logical progression.