Obesity rates among adults jumped from 15 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2008, based on a national survey. The number of states with obesity rates over 30 percent doubled in just one year, from four to eight –Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Mississippi topped the list with 33.8 percent of its adults and 21.9 percent of its children qualifying as obese. Experts say that if this epidemic is not addressed, it could result in children living shorter lives, and more adults suffering from obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
Despite these sobering statistics, one small town in Mississippi, just outside the Tennessee border, has actually made impressive strides in improving the health of its community. Need to Know spoke with Chip Johnson, mayor of Hernando (population: 15,000), about some of the initiatives that contributed to his county being ranked as the healthiest in the state, according to the 2010 County Health Rankings study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Jackie Pou: Why do you think Mississippi consistently tops nationwide obesity rankings?
Chip Johnson: Well, there are a lot of reasons. If you really read through the report, we’re number one in physical inactivity. We’re number one in hypertension. Of course number one in hypertension probably has to do with the obesity. We’re number two in adult diabetes. The other one is we’re ranked number one in poverty. And we are also ranked the lowest in adult consumption of fruit and vegetables. So when you start looking at all these things we’re ranked the worst at, they are obviously leading directly to an obesity epidemic.
Pou: You mentioned poverty. What role does it play in the obesity epidemic?
Johnson: The jury’s still out on whether that is the main problem but there are a lot of studies and actually one of them was just done at the University of Mississippi, that has… show[n] a direct link between poverty and obesity. And, through federal government subsidies, the worst foods now are the cheapest foods. So the things these people can afford are the things, are the very things we don’t want them to put in their bodies. I wish we could be subsidizing Brussels sprouts and tomatoes and broccoli, so that the cheaper foods are the [healthiest] foods.
Pou: So how does it work now?
Johnson: The subsidies I’m talking about are the huge subsidies on the corn crop which make high fructose corn syrup almost free. It’s so cheap they put it in almost every thing.
And you know, I don’t want to attack the corn growers because a lot of them are my friends. And this is a system that has been set up over the years. It’s not their fault. What I would like to see is just leave the corn growers alone, let’s keep subsidizing them if we need to but let’s add subsidies for people who want to grow the right things.
Pou: You seem to have really embraced the challenge of encouraging citizens in your community to adopt healthier lifestyles. Tell me about what you’re doing in Hernando.
Johnson: We’re just doing everything we can. We started a farmers market, we did that two and a half years ago and just this past Saturday when I was there we had 36 vendors and over a thousand people come visit it. And this is in a small town of 15,000. So we’re real happy with that farmers market. And another thing we’ve done is started a community garden and it’s going really well. And we’ve brought the churches in as partners because the churches are sometimes closer to the people than the government is and they know better the people who need these vegetables. And so we’re bringing them in to help us get those fruits and vegetables into the right hands. And of course the other thing I see from the community garden and it may even be bigger than the actual garden itself, is that it’s setting an example. And I’m seeing more and more gardens in people’s yards around town.
And I will brag about us just a minute. The Blue Cross/Blue Shield Commission in Mississippi, just last Wednesday announced, [that] we were awarded the healthiest hometown in Mississippi.
The report also highlighted how minority communities are particularly hard hit by the obesity epidemic. How are you addressing this issue in your community?
Johnson: Ah, well, we built our first-ever community center about four years ago with bond money that we borrowed and we built it right on the edge of our poorest minority neighborhood. The farmers market is about three blocks from our poorest minority neighborhood so people can walk to it. And I obtained a Safe Route to School grant for sidewalks and the neighborhood is that same neighborhood. We’re getting $213,000 worth of sidewalk to put in that neighborhood so those children can actually walk to school.
Pou: What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced?
Johnson: We just don’t have any money. That’s the biggest obstacle. Even though we are a relatively high-income city, we don’t tax ourselves very heavily so the government doesn’t have a lot of money. The farmers market is just something we started with volunteer labor and its pretty much just running itself. The community garden, we’ve been able to obtain a grant from the Northwest Mississippi Community Foundation to help with that. So we’re just doing things in little bits and pieces as we can.
Pou: What about other cities in Mississippi? You personally, you’re a mayor that’s really taken this on and made this a priority. Is it that for other mayors, it’s just not a priority?
Johnson: I’m the co-chair of a national league of cities group that has obtained a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and that money is to basically train elected officials on how to make their communities healthier. So we’re working on that and these eight southern states with the obesity numbers.
Pou: Talk to me a little bit about what efforts are underway in your community’s school system to curb the obesity problem.
Johnson: Well, I’ll have to preface this by saying I’m not in charge of our school system; it’s a county-wide school system… But what I’m very heartened to see in 2006 statewide in Mississippi only 22 percent of the schools didn’t sell sugar-sweetened soft drinks. In 2008, a short two years later, that number went up to 75 percent. So our state is making huge strides in getting nutrition in the schools.
Pou: Why is this issue so important to you?
Johnson: Well, I don’t even children but I have nephews and nieces, and when you hear that the children in your own town are not going to live as long as you do if you don’t do something about it, I think you just don’t have a heart. I think you just have to, and as a part of our charge as elected officials we’re supposed to protect our people and take care of the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. And I don’t ever intend to tell anybody they have to be healthy, but I absolutely believe it’s my duty to provide an atmosphere and an opportunity for good health. And that’s what we try to do and we just throw it out there and say, OK, here it is. Use it if you want to. And we’re seeing more and more people do that. We feel very strongly that in a few short years, we’ve created what I like to call a culture of good health. And it takes the citizens. You have to have citizen buy-in. And pretty quickly the citizens just take over the whole thing and run with it because they’re a lot smarter and more efficient at doing things than government. So you plant the seed, and it will just happen.
To see the full report on the nationwide obesity rates, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.