During the course of two brief years, community leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee, have transformed a grassroots effort into part of a national initiative, and captured a number-one ranking and the interest of First Lady Michelle Obama. For Knoxville, the Let’s Move! campaign has not only exposed thousands of kids to a healthier lifestyle, it also has paved the way to unite local organizations, drive them to new resources and provide opportunities to participate in a growing program.
Let’s Move! is a national initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama that addresses the rising childhood obesity epidemic with a slogan of “America’s move to raise a healthier generation of kids.” Knoxville’s introduction to Let’s Move! began in 2012 when the local coordinated school health representative approached Knoxville Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh about hosting a grassroots event that offered “a greenway of activities.” The concept was to get kids outside and playing to let them see firsthand how fun the outdoors really can be. A smaller town nearby (Lenoir City) that had just held a similar event was the inspiration for Knoxville.
Walsh agreed to the event without hesitation. “My thought went to something that I had heard recently at a breakfast meeting. The keynote speaker had cited a study that suggested we could be looking at the first generation of children who would not outlive their parents. As a recreation director, I immediately felt a sense of duty to do everything in my power — and in my department’s power — to fight that prediction,” he says.
Plans were made to hold the event at two city parks close to schools that had the highest obesity rates in the Knox County school system. With collaboration from more than 30 community organizations, the event committee pressed forward with the planning of the “Greenway of Activities” event. But the name was changed at the suggestion of a committee member who was already onboard with the national Let’s Move! campaign. Once the event became affiliated with Let’s Move!, it had White House power behind it, which attracted dozens of vendors and sponsors. That spring, Knoxville was named an official “Let’s Move! City” by the White House.
The momentum built as more than 1,000 children participated in Knoxville’s Let’s Move! event the first year. The following Let’s Move! event in 2013 had even more support. The National League of Cities (NLC) currently serves as the lead collaborating partner on Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Knoxville has been able to work with NLC to further Knoxville’s efforts and help bring more attention to the accomplishments of the initiative.
The Let’s Move! initiative asks cities, towns and counties across the nation to commit to five goals:
Goal I: Start Early, Start Smart
Goal II: MyPlate, Your Place
Goal III: Smart Servings for Students
Goal IV: Model Food Service
Goal V: Active Kids at Play
City of Knoxville and Knox County representatives convened with school administrators to help formulate the answers to the LMCTC medal status survey, which sites use to report progress, so that the City of Knoxville and Knox County could submit their data jointly. Shortly thereafter, they were both ranked number one in the nation among Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties goals. The ranking, which included a press release from NLC, resulted in national sponsorship for the Let’s Move! event held in Knoxville in May.
Since Knoxville and Knox County had received four gold medals and one bronze medal in the LMCTC goals, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was asked by the NLC to speak during a national webinar on Goal V: Active Kids at Play to share accomplishments and the steps it took to achieve them. Given the leadership of Mayor Rogero and successful activities locally, in July 2013 she was also invited to join First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in the anniversary celebration of the LMCTC program. At that gathering, the First Lady listed some of Knoxville’s successes, including mapping the Knoxville greenway system, the Kids Can Bike! program and the Walking School Bus program. Mayor Rogero also had been invited to speak on a panel of four elected officials during the same ceremony.
When David Agnew, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, asked what made Knoxville so successful, Mayor Rogero mentioned partners like the Legacy Parks Foundation, which has opened the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center and helped to secure much of the land for the 1,100-acre Urban Wilderness Corridor, home to 45 miles of connected trails.
The excitement from Knoxville’s recognition at the White House carried into new projects and new partners joining in, eager to enhance local programs that were geared toward childhood fitness and nutrition. The Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association, for example, had been awarded a $450,000 state grant to implement community gardens. They asked Knoxville Parks and Recreation to partner on the project so that their projects would line up with Let’s Move! initiatives. Mayor Rogero was also invited to give input at a workshop titled “Promoting Healthy Communities and Preventing Childhood Obesity” in Denver, sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Joe Walsh will be representing Knoxville on her behalf at that workshop. These are only a few examples of how Knoxville has benefited since plugging into Let’s Move!
“The pivotal point of the Let’s Move! program is that we can all agree that we want our youth to grow up with the best opportunities set before them,” Mayor Rogero says. “Right now, studies say that roughly one-third of our youth is either overweight or obese. We have a responsibility to save them from entering adulthood in this health debt, so to speak. Let’s Move! empowers us to combat this issue.”
Click here to learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties and to sign up your city, town or county.
Kathleen Gibi is a Public Affairs Specialist for the City of Knoxville Parks and Recreation, Tennessee.