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Weight Watchers, Mayors Support Healthy Lifestyles in Low-Income Communities



February 19th, 2013

The author, the CEO of Weight Watchers International, describes a new initiative that the company launched with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Cities can apply now (please see below).

Cities today face huge health challenges. For residents, cities are the guardians of public health. For municipal employees, cities serve as health care providers. In both cases, mayors and city councils must juggle these two roles at a time of fiscal crisis, high unemployment, and an ongoing obesity epidemic, which threatens the health of millions of Americans.

The corporate world, of course, faces its own challenges. To be successful and competitive, we need a vibrant, healthy workforce. We, too, must find ways to control employee health care costs.

So why not find ways to better tackle these problems together?

That is why Weight Watchers recently announced an initiative with the U.S. Conference of Mayors through which Weight Watchers will provide up to $1 million in grants to help foster healthier cities. The goal: Support behavior change to reduce the incidence of weight-related chronic diseases, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes, which fuel health care costs and undermine productivity and quality of life.

The Healthy Communities Grant Program is a pilot initiative that will recognize and assist three cities with existing healthy lifestyle programming. It will provide steeply discounted Weight Watchers memberships for local residents, based on health status and financial need. The goal is to help these cities to build upon their successful strategies for healthy eating, physical activity, and weight loss and management. Each city also will receive a $25,000 grant to administer its program and build capacity to help ensure its success. An outside panel of experts will choose the winning cities, which will be announced during the 81st Annual Conference of Mayors, June 21–24, in Las Vegas.

The grant application is available here.  The deadline for applying is March 29!

The effort builds on the notion that mayors learn best from each other by sharing best practices that promote innovative solutions. Our hope is that this grant program will encourage more cities to follow the lead of those such as Baltimore; Oklahoma City; Asheville, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky.

In January, at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., mayors from these cities joined me on a panel where they discussed programs that are already making a difference for their citizens. They explained that their unique position—on the ground and face-to-face with the people they serve every day—gives them unique insights into what can really work and special motivation to try a combination of solutions to tackle this problem.

Take Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore. Although it is home to world-class health institutions, including Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore has some of the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in the nation, and a citywide health assessment shows huge disparities in disease and death rates by neighborhood. These findings led to the development of Healthy Baltimore 2015, the city’s comprehensive health policy agenda.

Rawlings-Blake also started the Virtual Supermarket Program, an innovative, award-winning program that uses an online system to bring food to Baltimore neighborhoods where residents don’t have cars and/or access to healthy foods. The program allows neighborhood residents to order groceries online at local library branches and other public venues and then pick up their orders at a convenient community site with the city’s health department picking up the tab for delivery. This program is also the only one in the nation that allows residents to pay for groceries online using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

When Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Oklahoma City as the eighth fattest city in America, Mayor Mick Cornett was embarrassed. First, he led by example, shedding forty pounds. Then he challenged his residents to lose a total of one million pounds. A private entity donated the resources to set up a website for citizens to track their efforts, and nearly 50,000 visited it. By January 2012, the city met its goal. Cornett also built on interest in the weight-loss effort to get taxpayer support for new gym facilities in all inner-city grade schools, new city sidewalks, more than 100 miles of jogging trails, and a new seventy-acre downtown park. The result? In 2012, Oklahoma City was ranked as the country’s twenty-third fittest city by Men’s Fitness.

Like many cities, Asheville, North Carolina, faces rising health care costs for city employees. Twenty percent of city employees account for 80 percent of costs, so the city began an employee wellness program that is now a model for other cities. Asheville also implemented a “complete streets” program to allow more citizens to walk and ride bikes, after discovering that a low-income neighborhood had no sidewalks—which meant children couldn’t walk to school. Asheville also amended a city ordinance to allow churches and schools to operate “tailgate markets,” where producers can now sell produce directly to the public.

Louisville, Kentucky, residents consume $3 billion of food every year, including some $600 million in local food, and Mayor Greg Fischer used this fact to help farmers connect with local large-volume users to build a sustainable local food economy. Part of that effort includes “Healthy in a Hurry” corner markets, a partnership with the YMCA, which allow low-income residents to purchase fruit and vegetables directly from corner stores. In addition to providing healthy food options in underserved neighborhoods, the program benefits local farmers, provides jobs to youth, and instills business skills.

Adding to these efforts, earlier this month, we teamed with Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, to announce that all Newark city employees are eligible for discounted Weight Watchers membership—a proven, community-based way to help people lose weight and learn to keep it off. Like the other efforts, the goal is to help improve health through a public-private partnership.

We believe in the power of mayors to transform their communities through leadership and innovative programs. They have the benefit of being able to coordinate multiple parties to drive a more comprehensive approach that can tackle obesity from all sides in the communities where people live and work. Given the many causes of obesity, there is no “silver bullet” cure, but we believe this approach shows great promise for cities to make real progress on this public health crisis.

For the past five years, Weight Watchers’ giving in the United States has been focused on its annual Lose For Good campaign, which gives members and Weight Watchers Online Subscribers the chance to help fight global hunger and chronic malnutrition, simply by losing weight. Since the inaugural campaign in 2008, Weight Watchers has donated $4 million to Share Our Strength and Action Against Hunger to help tackle this critical issue. In 2013, we are adding to these efforts by working to make our expertise in weight loss available to those who otherwise could not afford it by partnering with mayors, as explained above.

 

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