We're in a lot of trouble here--we are the capital of obesity country.
Storied geographer and writer/historian, Jared Diamond's, book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (2005), is a spell binding look at how civilizations can fail to meet overwhelming threats. Diamond chronicles a series of now dead societies, from the Viking settlements in Greenland to the folks who populated Easter Island, and draws a scary picture of how these communities failed to drop strategies that once served them well, strategies that became counterproductive and precipitated their demise.
Belt's Too Tight.
A phalanx of national "health watch" organizations routinely list Oklahoma as one of the most obesity prone places in the country. The estimate: as many as 65% of Oklahomans are obese or overweight. And Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of being a leader in childhood obesity. Doing something about reducing obesity among children is not an option for Oklahoma. If we don't attend to this burgeoning crisis we will be witness to hundreds of thousands of additional adult Oklahomans with chronic metabolic diseases and explosive medical costs and untold suffering. No matter what kind of national healthcare regimen is in place near term, our state will almost surely spend monster sums on chronic disease treatment and other consequences of having huge portions of our population in the obesity zone. Failure to act decisively is driving us closer, by the day, to Professor Diamonds "Collapse" territory.
This week, I did a UTW profile of the work that Dr. Gerard Clancy, president of OU/Tulsa and a medical pro is leading. Clancy is steering a sweeping transformation of how healthcare is organized, provided and delivered in Green Country. One of the things that I didn't cover is the role that health education or really the absence of same factos into this challenge. The uncomfortable reality is that many adults and children in Tulsa don't have the health knowledge needed for healthier eating, to sustain exercise programs, and to do all the other things that good health requires.
St. Francis's Health Teacher Project
But there is help on the way: the St. Francis Healthcare System this week donated $1 million to fund "Health Teacher" project in Green Country. The Project provides a giant passel of online resources and ready-made video/audio tutorials on how children can be healthier, safer, and able to secure better food, nutrition and exercise. Dr. Keith Ballard, the Tulsa Public Schools chief indicated recently, that the Project will be used by hundreds of teachers in the area and could impact tens of thousands of students. "Health Teacher" is one of a bevy of health education initiatives now in play in Green Country. And the folks who manage Oklahoma's little known Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, a sizable fund source, are now financing a raft of community-based health ed projects through Oklahoma's State Health Department. But health education in Oklahoma has a checkered history. Oklahoma's political establishment and influential parts of our religious community have severe reservations about allowing public schools to provide health instruction to children. We're not talking about sex education, but any kind of health education. Part of the reining lunacy, only parents or church folks are in a position to provide this kind of sensitive instruction to children. Not only is this loco thinking, it doesn't grapple with an inescapable reality that while parents have got to be vital players in any effective health ed project, they can't be the prime actors simply because the overwhelming majority don't have the time, the energy and in most cases, the actual knowledge required to do a good job.
More "5320" like projects
We need more efforts like the State Department of Health "5320" campaign, an imaginative, social marketing project. The effort used a teaser message to illuminate the stark costs of being in a state that falls far short of national health norms. 5,320 lives was the number of deaths that could have been avoided if Oklahoma met a standard set of health status norms during 2010, the year the campaign was in play. "5320" attracted lots of attention, particularly among kids, and attained an almost cult like status in some circles. We need more efforts like it.
The Food Nexus
Having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, being able to afford them and wanting to eat them is powerful obesity "medicine" for kids and adults alike. Oklahomans, according to our State Health Department, are the poorest consumers of fruits and vegetables in the U.S.!
Part of the problem is economic. Fresh produce and fruits are expensive. Another part is access. We have many "food deserts" in Tulsa and OKC and in rural Oklahoma. These are big chunks of territory where you can't find grocery outlets. Another part is attitude. A tectonic shift in food habits and diets is needed and health ed for kids can help spark such a change. This is a big topic. I plan to write more on this and urban agriculture later.
But there is a big, adventurous strategy. It's a little edgy, but we should try it, given the humongous scale of Green Country's challenge. The Wii and Kinect systems are cool plays for people who want to mix home fun with a little physical activity. But we need to go beyond Wii and company. We should exploit the emerging broad-scale application of what some call "serious games" to drive personal fitness, push exercise regimens and improve food/eating habits in kids and adults. Dr. Jane McGonigal, a VP at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future, and a game designer, has done lots of work in this new realm. McGonigal has written about and is designing with others, video and mobile device games for health care and wellness projects. They create, she writes, unique incentives and unheard of cooperation and kids are at the center of several of the most promising efforts. The serious game movement, the tools for fashioning these projects and the underlying change/feedback models are in an early stage. Tulsa could, with help from our wonderful philanthropic community, and guidance from our booming biomedical leadership, be a leader in this arena, maybe via a pilot kids health game effort or two.
We need to spark a T-town movement to weave the political, social and intellectual capital together to get Green Country schools, our public square, our health care cadre, our business community and kids and adults to roll back Fat City.
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