Oklahoma 180° | A New Culture of Health

I was impressed when I talked to locals in Oklahoma. They are aware that they have a problem. Obesity. OK is one of the Top 10 most obese states in the nation. Not a list you want to make.

I visited Elk City and Oklahoma City and got the scoop on how these two cities are trying to reverse the obesity epidemic through policy and environmental change. The end game is to transform both communities into places that support and promote a healthy lifestyle.

In Elk City I met city hall members and had an in depth conversation with Jordan Parman, Program Director for Healthy Living at Elk City’s Youth and Family Services.

 Elk City town hall members sporting their wild shirts on Fun Friday

Elk City town hall members sporting their wild shirts on Fun Friday

 Jordan Parman, Program Director for Healthy Living at Elk City’s Youth and Family Services

Jordan Parman, Program Director for Healthy Living at Elk City’s Youth and Family Services

In Oklahoma City, I was eager to meet Mayor Cornett but alas he was out of the office. So I spoke to locals and researched Mayor Cornett’s success strategy.

 Tuesday night race night at Wheeler Criterium

Tuesday night race night at Wheeler Criterium

Here are my top 5 ways to infuse health into a community:

1. Have a tangible goal

To involve a community, city leaders need to set a tangible goal – a goal that people can rally behind. Elk City seems to be chasing down a percent reduction in obesity. I’d say Oklahoma City’s target was far more compelling. Mayor Cornett put Oklahoma City on a diet with a goal to lose 1 million pounds, equivalent to the weight of 100 elephants. It’s any easy number for each individual to contribute to and for the community to track overall progress.

 OKC's goal was to lose the weight equivalent to 100 elephants. Photo courtesy Nick Brandt Photography

OKC's goal was to lose the weight equivalent to 100 elephants. Photo courtesy Nick Brandt Photography

2. Make it social

In 2007 Oklahoma City launched the website - http://www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com. It was engaging - providing daily health tips and a competitive atmosphere to drop the weight. Over five years they had 47,700 participants and shed the weight of 100 elephants. 

3. Lead by example

Mayor Cornett shockingly realized he was considered obese. So he first put himself on a diet, losing 60 lbs and becoming proof of what a low calorie diet coupled with exercise can do. As many locals told me, you can see the mayor walking around the city, even on the hottest days. He walks the talk.

Elk City has spent almost a half a million dollars on health campaigns but has not yet seen much traction. Jordan said the community feels that they are forcing them to eat less and exercise. She says she needs to do a better job engaging the community, building relations and being a part of the change. I think she is spot on.

4. Educate the next generation

Elk City has a wellness policy adopted by three schools with more coming online in the fall. Here are a few of the policy mandates, which is engraining healthy habits into the youth.

  • Implementation of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which gets junk food out of schools and brings nutritious food into schools.
  • Turn off vending machines during lunch, so it doesn’t become a temptation.
  • No outside restaurants can come in and sell during lunch.
  • Advise parents of younger children to get creative. Instead of cupcakes for a birthday, bring something fun and nutritious.

5. Make Healthy an Easy Choice

Elk City’s Healthy Living mantra is “Healthy choice is the easy choice.” I think this is a meaningful slogan since most of our food decisions are mindless. You grab what is quick, convenient and available. Elk City is changing the environment so the mindless choice is a healthy choice. The city has an ambitious goal - to regulate what grocery stores offer, limiting the junk and infusing the shelves with quality food. I imagine this will take some time to enact, but once it is enforced it will make healthy choices the available choice.

Oklahoma city has made great strides in building out an active lifestyle. Mayor Cornett rolled out the MAPS 3 initiative, a $800 million investment in parks, urban transit and wellness centers to reshape Oklahoma City and enhance the quality of life of its residents. They added 400 miles of new sidewalks, over 100 miles of new jogging and biking trails, and they’ve built a downtown park.

How did the city come up with $800 million? The city approved a once-cent sales tax for seven years with the target of raising the necessary funds. It can be done.

Takeaway

You can change a culture. Oklahoma is living proof of how you can flip 180° from fried food and a sedentary lifestyle to a nutritious, active way of life. No doubt, it takes time but OK is headed in the right direction.