Mayors and other municipal leaders from 19 cities and towns in the Mid South - where childhood obesity rates are among the nation's highest - convened in Jackson, Miss., last week to learn and share ideas for building healthier communities.
"Almost every municipal leader in the country is charged with promoting the health and safety of their city's residents," said Mayor Patrick Hayes of North Little Rock, Ark. "The childhood obesity epidemic is too important for us to ignore."
The meeting officially kicked off the Municipal Leadership for Healthy Southern Cities initiative, which is sponsored by NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Leadership for Healthy Communities national program. Through this initiative, NLC staff and two NLC senior consultants who live and work in the Mid South region are providing in-depth technical assistance to four cities - Baton Rouge, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Tupelo, Miss., - as they take steps to promote physical activity and access to healthy foods.
NLC is also partnering with the Foundation for the Mid South, state municipal leagues and state health departments to assist 15 smaller, more rural communities from Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi in combating childhood obesity.
During the meeting, a panel of municipal leaders - including three mayors, an assistant city manager and an assistant chief administrative officer - reflected on the reasons that childhood obesity is on their cities' agendas, the political forces that come into play when addressing the issue and low-cost or no-cost measures that can jumpstart local efforts.
The reasons that city officials become concerned about this public health threat are often intensely personal in nature, noted Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed. Health challenges faced by individual mayors, council members or their family members, for example, can bring larger public health concerns to the forefront and motivate municipal officials to act.
"As mayor, I wanted to use my platform to make a difference," said Mayor Reed.
The panel discussion included acknowledgments that an issue such as childhood obesity can provoke local opposition. At the same time, Bryan Day, assistant city manager in Little Rock, and Dr. James Llorenz, assistant chief administrative officer in Baton Rouge, stressed that the opportunities to identify allies and build community coalitions in support of local action can be even more noteworthy.
"There are always people in the community who resist change, and that will certainly be the case as you try to take steps to reduce childhood obesity," observed Mayor Gene McGee of Ridgeland, Miss. "So you have to be prepared to work long hours and be persistent in your leadership."
Mayors also noted the importance of making the economic case for action in addition to focusing on implications for public health. Small investments in prevention can stave off higher future health costs associated with elevated obesity rates. This issue "hits us in the face and in the pocketbooks," said Mayor Hayes.
According to Hernando, Miss., Mayor Chip Johnson, who is co-chairing the project along with Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin L. "Kip" Holden and Savannah, Ga., Mayor Otis S. Johnson, there are often a number of inexpensive ways to advance policies that promote healthier choices and to use the bully pulpit to raise awareness. "Getting started does not cost much," Mayor Chip Johnson has said. "Do it and then talk about it 15 million times."
The YEF Institute and the Foundation for the Mid South have been working closely with the region's three state municipal leagues - the Arkansas Municipal League, Louisiana Municipal Association and Mississippi Municipal League - to reach out to smaller, more rural communities participating in the Healthy Southern Communities initiative and devise new ways of supporting peer learning across these small cities and towns.
The region's three state health departments will also be an integral part of this project. A senior health official from each department made presentations during the meeting that documented the extraordinarily high rates of childhood obesity within their states, and described opportunities for local officials to become engaged in statewide efforts.
"The increase in childhood obesity rates impacts both the physical health of our children and the fiscal health of our nation's cities and towns," said Mayor Chip Johnson. "By advancing thoughtful policy and environmental changes, municipal leaders can help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic and stem the increase in obesity-related illnesses."
Learn more about the Municipal Leadership for Healthy Southern Cities project, or contact Leon Andrews at (202) 626-3039 or firstname.lastname@example.org.