story by Kim Souza
More than 180 community leaders from the region put their heads together Thursday (Jan. 31) to discuss ways to tackle rising obesity and support healthier, more active lifestyles for the area’s nearly 400,000 residents.
Patsy Christie, community and planning director for the City of Springdale, would like to see a bicycle sharing program made possible along the Razorback Greenway and related trails.
Jim McGuire, local farmer and director of the Springdale farmers market, wants to see more families getting access to homegrown fruits and vegetables year round, with cooking demonstrations and healthy recipes.
Maria Jimenez of Rogers supports more community health fairs and expos that provide important screening and education for the entire family.
This round table discussion along with two dozen others were part of the EnergizeNWA Summit held at the Hammons Convention Center on Thursday.
Dr. John Agwunobi, president of health and wellness for Walmart US, encouraged the group to leverage the strength across the room and seek out partnerships that reward families for healthy choices. In his keynote speech, he cited Wal-Mart’s move to work with its suppliers to get healthier products on the grocery shelves over the past year under the “Great for You” logo.
Agwunobi said Wal-Mart didn’t stop there, but worked with Humana Insurance to devise a reward point system for those insured who buy healthier food options, like low sodium black beans.
“There are all sorts of possibilities than can happen we people start the conversation,” he said.
The Endeavor Foundation kicked off the day-long summit with promises to award $400,000 in grants this year to programs and organizations that support community-led programs, policies and infrastructure solutions to promote overall health.
“We envision a Northwest Arkansas where healthy, affordable food is available in every neighborhood, workplace and school,” said Anita Scism, president and CEO for the Endeavor Foundation. “We see a region where bicycling and walking rival driving, and a place where it is easy to eat well and be physically active because our community supports a healthy lifestyle.”
Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson gives Northwest Arkansas credit for being ahead of the pack with community leadership that is making the Razorback Greenway a reality.
During his speech, Thompson applauded Endeavor’s focus which includes:
• Exploring the need for a regional “safe routes to school” program that can allow more families to walk their kids to and from school;
• A plan for improved food access across the region; and,
• Producing a regional, interactive map that residents and visitors can use to plan their own safe walking and cycling routes around the diverse communities in the region.
“Northwest Arkansas could be a leader in the nation with the Razorback Greenway effort and it’s a great start and base to build upon, but there is still much that needs to be done,” Thompson said.
He painted a solemn picture that one in four adults are obese today saying 10% have been diagnosed with diabetes and many more are on the direct path. Thompson agreed that we need doctors and insurance, but that’s not the solution.
“We need daily exercise and good nutrition like never before. A slow health epidemic over the past two decades has started to rock our families and our communities and this region’s wealth, health and productivity,” Thompson said.
The Center for Disease Control estimates roughly 20% of U.S. kids are obese, and the highest rates are found in the South.
Thompson said we all have been educated about the effects of tobacco use but smoker health care costs pale in comparison to those for obese adults and children.
He said major behavior changes from the 1970s through today are to blame. Walking or riding bicycles to school were common, three channels of television and limited cartoons to watch on Saturday meant kids spent more time playing outside and less time be entertained by computers or video games.
Thompson said portion sizes and food choices in the family diet are also to blame and must be addressed for any long term solution.
He said the financial costs of the obesity epidemic are staggering out of control. Roughly 9% of all medical expenses could be saved if our obese population were normal weight. There is $13.4 billion spent annually in Arkansas – $1.2 billion of that could be saved.
A recent survey of state employees revealed 32% were obese, 21% were physically inactive and 12% were smokers. The related annual heath care costs for these groups rose more for the obese group than the smokers.
It costs the state $2,400 a year for a healthy person with none of these three risks. That cost rose to $3,679 for someone obese, to $3,643 for physically inactive and to $3,081 for the tobacco user.
Looking at the bigger picture, health care costs doubled between 2000 and 2010 and continue to escalate which puts more pressure on employers’ and a family’s affordability.
Thompson challenged the 180 business leaders to attack the problem at the community level focusing on environmental factors.
For instance, he said all neighborhoods should have mandatory sidewalks with easy access to fresh food markets and healthier nutritional options.
“Changes that affect the structural and cultural components of a neighborhood can improve generations, not just an individual.” Thompson said.