Michael Nutter is mayor of Philadelphia and the immediate past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. David Kirchhoff is CEO of Weight Watchers International, Inc. This post follows up on a GrantWatch Blog post authored by Kirchhoff, which we published in February.

When the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Weight Watchers International launched the Healthy Communities Grant Program in January, we anticipated finding cities with a keen interest in cutting obesity rates. What we discovered is a wide range of innovation and creativity being used to tackle this major public health problem.

The Healthy Communities Grant Program is a $1 million pilot initiative that is the first partnership between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Weight Watchers International. We designed it to help cities address the ongoing obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two of every three adults in the United States are overweight or obese. That fact places them at higher risk for weight-related chronic illnesses, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. These diseases fuel health care costs, undermine productivity, and diminish quality of life.

We must begin to prevent these diseases by treating obesity. And that treatment must go beyond the commonly heard advice to eat less and exercise more. Research shows that people are far less likely to be successful when they try to lose weight on their own. They need ongoing and consistent support to develop the sustained behavior changes required to lose weight and keep it off.

To that end, the Healthy Communities Grant Program was crafted to help three selected cities take their healthy lifestyle programming efforts to the next level. In addition to sharing up to $1 million of partially subsidized Weight Watchers memberships for local residents (subsidies based on health status and financial qualifiers), each winning city will also receive $25,000 to administer the program in its locality.

A panel of independent judges—Irma Anderson, former mayor of Richmond, California; Paul Helmke, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Barbara Moore, executive director of Shape-Up America, independently reviewed the grant applications. Among the criteria they considered were the successful healthy lifestyle programs already in place and the cities’ compelling visions to use the grant to expand their efforts. There were many strong applicants, but the three that emerged as winners were York, Pennsylvania; Racine, Wisconsin; and Baltimore, Maryland.

What impressed the judges about these three cities is the leadership and holistic approach they have demonstrated in fighting obesity and weight-related diseases.

In York, Mayor C. Kim Bracey was inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program to implement a local version of that program in September 2012. Bracey set a goal for residents to shed 5,000 pounds and log 350,000 minutes of physical activity in a year. Let’s Move York City strives to foster healthy lifestyles by supporting innovative programs such as “Healthy Kids on the Move,” “Play Streets,” and “Eat, Play, Breathe York.”

One in three York residents lives below the poverty level, so the Healthy Communities grant is designed to help parents who qualify, through body mass index (BMI) and income-level criteria, to gain access to steeply discounted Weight Watchers memberships. The goal is to give York adults the knowledge and tools to reach a healthier weight so that they can, by example, teach their children healthy behaviors and how to be more active throughout their lives. Thus, the City of York plans to use the Healthy Communities grant to help parents become role models for their children by adopting healthier eating and exercise habits.

Obesity rates are six percent higher for adults in Racine County, Wisconsin, than the national average, and this statistic makes chronic disease prevention a top priority for the City of Racine. Mayor John Dickert has led by example by participating in “Beat the Boss,” which challenged city employees to beat the mayor in working out. Dickert has also convinced local business leaders to participate in the Well Racine initiative, a component of Well City USA, a nonprofit group that challenges local businesses to work together at the worksite to build healthier communities. As a result, area businesses are successfully providing results-oriented wellness programs for nearly 16,000 employees—20 percent of Racine’s residents—including municipal workers.

Through the Healthy Communities grant, Racine hopes to expand its Well City Racine designation to a Well County Racine designation. To meet this goal, Well County Racine businesses will work with Weight Watchers to offer qualified residents steeply discounted Weight Watchers memberships. This effort will help Racine take its successful strategies for healthy eating, physical activity, weight loss, and reduction of chronic illness to a new level.

Reducing cardiovascular disease and obesity are key health priorities for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore City Health Department. The department has undertaken numerous efforts to counter obesity, including providing access to healthy foods through establishment of a Virtual Supermarket Program and by establishing safe opportunities for physical activity.

One program—B’more Fit for Healthy Babies—is designed to help postpartum women from low-income households to lose weight after giving birth. Weight Watchers leaders host weekly Weight Watchers meetings, and local fitness experts from the YMCA of Central Maryland and Brick Bodies offer weekly exercise instruction to participants. Since the program launched in February 2012, more than a fifth—21.6 percent—of the 278 participants have lost 10 percent of their body weight. The Healthy Communities grant will allow the program to expand to serve more women in two high-need Baltimore neighborhoods, as well as women and men, including seniors, in another area with high obesity rates.

The thread that links all of these efforts is commitment. Each city has already made fighting obesity a priority. They’re leading the way with innovation and creativity in tackling this daunting public health problem. We congratulate each winning city and look forward to watching how the grants help all three cities to take their efforts to the next level.

In these short videos, learn more about each winning city’s efforts to combat obesity and how each plans to use its U.S. Conference of Mayors and Weight Watchers Healthy Communities grant.

Editor’s note:

Related resource:

Read “Foundation Funding to Prevent Obesity,” the GrantWatch column (free access) in the June 2013 issue of Health Affairs journal.