Last week, Zarnaaz Bashir, NRPA’s director of strategic health initiatives, and I attended a Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties event at the White House, hosted by Michelle Obama. As you might imagine, we were both thrilled to attend this small event and hear the First Lady speak about her initiative to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthier, more active lifestyles for children and adults nationwide. NRPA and park and recreation agencies across the country have launched countless programs to curtail this epidemic, so we were excited that these collective efforts were being so highly recognized and applauded.
Most of the other attendees were municipal officials such as mayors, city and county commissioners, city planners and community health personnel, and Zarnaaz recognized a number of familiar faces, including NRPA Board of Directors member Leon Andrews, who also serves as program director at the National League of Cities' Institute for Youth, Education and Families.
The event began with remarks by David Agnew, deputy assistant to President Obama and director of intergovernmental affairs, and Sam Kass, executive director for Let’s Move! They both noted some alarming statistics (1 in 3 young Americans is obese, 1 in 3 Americans will get diabetes in their lifetime if we don’t radically change our lifestyles, etc.) and thanked the attendees for the progress made in the year since the launch of the Cities, Towns and Counties component of Let’s Move!
Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, then presented some even more disquieting numbers, such as how 40 percent of our kids in African-American and Hispanic communities are overweight or obese, and that 1 in 4 young people is currently ineligible to enlist in the military due to weight problems. However, he also noted that some encouraging progress has been made. For example, from 2005 to 2011, the obesity rate among K-5th graders in Mississippi dropped by more than 13 percent. This was directly attributed to statewide efforts spearheaded by the governor and state legislature to change food options and promote increased physical activity in schools, places of worship, park and recreation facilities and similar entities. That’s pretty significant. Dr. Koh concluded by saying the goal is to make progress like this sustainable and that the efforts of community leaders like those in attendance is what makes it all possible.
After a brief introduction by Moscow, Idaho, Mayor Nancy Chaney, First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage. You can see her speech here. Thinking this event would be more of a mobilization effort, I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming level of gratitude Obama expressed to the community leaders in the audience. She really gave credit where credit was due to the grassroots organizers who have pushed through successful initiatives. “You do not have to do what you are doing,” she acknowledged, recognizing the difficulties of carrying out programs with impact in times of reduced budgets and personnel.
She then spotlighted a few particularly notable communities that have banded together to promote healthier lifestyles, including Missoula, Montana, which offers free open gym access with programming from the parks department to all 4th and 5th graders, and Knox County, Tennessee, which has established a popular bike and share program. It was impressive to hear about the innovative ideas different community leaders across the country have come up with to encourage their citizens to be more active and eat healthier meals. It was even more impressive to hear how well these programs are working.
For future efforts, Obama simply asked engaged leaders to keep doing what they’re doing in terms of making their communities healthier. She’s excited about the progress that has been shown so far and encouraged leaders to keep up the good work. “We know that that this is a challenge that simply can’t be fixed in a year or two, or even 10,” she said. “And I get this question all the time — what's the cutoff when you think this will be over? It took us a lifetime, generations, to get here, and it's going to take us just as much time to turn this around.” She also asked for community leaders to set personal examples and make some major lifestyle changes themselves if they’re not practicing what they preach, to showcase to their communities the positive impacts of healthier living.
After Obama stepped offstage, a panel of mayors and county commissioners discussed some of their most successful initiatives, then Dr. Chris Murray of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington gave an interesting presentation with time-lapse graphics showing the changing health of America. It’s one thing to hear that America is getting obese, but it really hits you just how severe the problem is when you watch colors shifting on a U.S. map, illustrating the skyrocketing percentages of obesity and hypertension rates on a county-by-county level. But the problem is turning around in some dedicated areas, showing as a shift from red back to blue in places like Kentucky.
I’ll admit — one of the main reasons I went to this event was just to see the First Lady speak live and in person. But I’m glad I went for more reasons than that. I’m proud to support the efforts of park and recreation professionals across the country who are the first-line responders to this nationwide epidemic of obesity, those who make fitness and recreation a lifestyle and set healthy living examples for children and adults alike. So, in the words of the First Lady, congratulations, and keep up all of your good work!