August 16, 2022

The Big Picture: A City Tries to Slim Down

The street symbolizes one of many hurdles facing officials here working to put a severely overweight population on a diet. After all, Kentucky is where Colonel Harland Sanders first made his famous fried chicken and a hotel invented the Hot Brown, a turkey-bacon sandwich drowning in Mornay sauce.

In many ways, Louisville’s experience in fighting obesity is little different from that of a dieter stepping on and off a scale. Successes on one front are countered by setbacks on another, and signs that the needle has moved overall are slight and mostly anecdotal.

More than six in 10 people in metro Louisville are still considered seriously overweight, in a state that ranks seventh in the nation for obesity. The rates continued to rise through 2008, while the percentage of the population reporting any physical activity outside of work fell despite public campaigns advocating more walking and biking.

More recent developments underscore the tug of war over food and weight. On one hand, KFC has announced plans for its first nonfried menu, alongside leaflets listing the calorie, fat and salt content of its entire line (as required by the new federal health act).

Behind the scenes, its corporate parent, Yum Brands, was quietly lobbying the state government to turn Kentucky into one of the few states that allow the use of food stamps in its restaurants, which include Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, according to documents unearthed by The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville.

“It turns my stomach, the push for using food stamps for fast-food purchase,” said Dr. Adewale Troutman, director of the public health practice at the University of South Florida. “It makes the unhealthy option the easier one.”

As director of the Louisville health department until last fall, Dr. Troutman presided over a campaign that has come to involve nearly every city agency, from the mayor’s office to the sewer department.

The city’s efforts to combat obesity, how and where it is spending money to fight it are instructive at a time when federal dollars are becoming more scarce and budgets are pinched. Cities are increasingly vying for nonprofit and government financing now available as concerns about the obesity epidemic have been underscored by Michelle Obama and others.

To obesity warriors, trying to assess how best to spend the money and demonstrate progress may not be clear for 10 years or more, prompting calls for patience.

“The changes to our physical and social environments that have contributed to the epidemic were gradual and have had decades to gain momentum,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We have to expect that this won’t be a quick fix.”

The foundation began its fight against obesity here in 2003 with a grant that, among other things, helped establish the city’s first bicycle lane and ensured that the redevelopment of a low-income housing project included small “pocket” parks, improved traffic patterns and wider and safer sidewalks.

Based on that early progress here and elsewhere, the foundation announced in 2007 that it would spend $500 million to try to reduce childhood obesity rates. Louisville received about $400,000, bringing the foundation’s total investment here to nearly $740,000. It also leveraged its private grants to receive almost $8 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In some of the low-income neighborhoods, there are small signs that awareness of obesity as a problem has increased.

For instance, a local corner store in the Smoketown neighborhood has begun selling plastic tubs of cut fruit as snack food, and orange traffic cones and tape protect freshly poured concrete curb cuts aimed at making walking easier.

At the Presbyterian Community Center’s annual pre-Christmas breakfast, the demand for eggs now outstrips that for bacon — though whether the change can be chalked up to new neighborhood eating habits or the recent arrival of several Somali families is anyone’s guess.

“It’s kind of become a movement,” Bill Gatewood, the center’s executive director, said. “We still have a long way to go, but you do see some changes.”

Another example of how Robert Wood Johnson money has come into play is the St. Peter Claver Community Garden, formerly an abandoned lot that has a waiting list for its plots and is used by the nearby middle school.

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