If Hartford wants to lose weight, it has a lot to learn from ... Mississippi.
Yes, that Mississippi, the one with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation. The state with the highest poverty rate, too.
But it's also the state that reduced the rate of overweight children in kindergarten through fifth grade last year by more than 13 percent. It reduced the rate of obesity in high school students, too.
Both Mississippi and Hartford have worrisome — and similar — rates of obesity in their young people. A UConn study last year showed that 37 percent of Hartford's preschool children are obese or overweight.
We are talking obese toddlers. Adults are failing them. If they aren't helped, we'll have an entire generation more likely to suffer depression, diabetes, chronic ailments such as diabetes, killers including heart attacks and a shortened life span. (The American Medical Association has declared obesity itself a disease.)
Recently, a Connecticut Forum study, "How Hartford Is Eating," underlined the seriousness of obesity and suggested ways to make healthy eating habits the norm. The report is a good one, pointing out the institutions, nonprofits and public schools that are doing their best to reduce hunger in Hartford and increase access to fresh food. (You can access it here: http://bit.ly/1cKycpP.)
But what all these good-hearted efforts don't have is 1) involvement from the ordinary citizens of Hartford and 2) one champion to lead all the efforts.
A champion? That has to be Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra. He's already demonstrated his interest. Mayor Segarra needs to seize this issue and mobilize the city using the power of his office.
How? Back to Mississippi.
Church Suppers, Convenience Stores
When the state learned a decade ago that it was the most obese in the nation, it got scared — and busy. Churches, community foundations, municipal leaders began to do what they could.
What they lacked in money, they made up for in creativity.
Ministers preached health from the pulpit. Some banned the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese that were staples of church suppers in favor of healthier options.
Tupelo, Miss., started "Health on a Shelf," convincing convenience stores to sell fruits and vegetables so customers would have low-fat, healthy choices. Skeptical store owners thought they wouldn't buy such items. They were proven wrong.
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed began the "Mayor's Marathon," which encouraged kids to walk 26 miles a month — about a mile a day.
The small town of Itta Bena began public nutrition classes to help town residents cook healthier meals.
Okalona, a town of 3,000, started "Five in Thirty" to help town residents lose five pounds in 30 days.
Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson posts on Facebook when he intends to go running and invites young people to join him. They do.
Towns across the state got schools to open their pools and playgrounds to residents all year and in the evenings.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, through Leadership for Healthy Communities, helped these efforts. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation pitched in, giving $150,000 in prize money annually to towns trying to reduce obesity.
Many municipalities in Mississippi have less than half the budget of Connecticut towns with the same population. Money is less important than leadership, creativity and community.
Dr. Mary Currier, head of Mississippi's Department of Health, is cautious about the state's progress, stressing that the task is enormous.
True. But it's done a lot with a little.
Hartford can, too.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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