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How Oklahoma Declared War on Obesity—and What's Happened Since


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Smallish, conservative American city decides to own its major healthcare issue, quickly realizes that better health for all will entail dealing with infrastructure issues like ZERO miles of bike lanes and food deserts.

It's rather inspiring to see an entire city commit to healthier lifestyles together. 

Velveth’s life was changed—and probably ultimately saved—when she took Susie for a medical check-up and was enrolled on a program to curb obesity. Now she eats fast food just once a week, cooks more vegetables, has cut down the number of tortillas consumed at meals and exercises daily by walking up and down stairs for 20 minutes. Although still overweight, in just four months she has lost 16 of those pounds gained in America. “All my friends are impressed,” she told me with a smile. “I feel like I have so much more energy now. I can do the shopping and laundry, bathe the baby, and I’m not nearly so tired as before.”

Velveth is one beneficiary of a remarkable attempt to tackle obesity. For Oklahoma City has declared war on fat. First the mayor—realizing he had become clinically obese just as his hometown was identified by a magazine as one of America’s most overweight cities—challenged his citizens to collectively lose a million pounds. But hitting that target was just the start: this veteran Republican politician then took on the car culture that shaped his nation and asked citizens to back a tax rise to fund a redesign of the state capital around people.

This unleashed an incredible range of initiatives, including the creation of parks, sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaped walking trails across the city. Every school is getting a gym. With the new emphasis on exercise, city officials spent $100 million creating the world’s finest rowing and kayaking centre in a Midwest town with no tradition of the sport beforehand. Overweight people are targeted at home and at work to alter their lifestyles, while data are used to discover the districts with the worst health outcomes so that resources can be poured in to change behavior.

The experiment is unusual in terms of its ambition, breadth and cost, all of which take it beyond anything being attempted by other American cities in the fight against fat. The battle is being done with, rather than against, the fast food industry and soft drinks manufacturers, relying largely on persuasion instead of coercion through soda bans and sugar taxes. The city has been dubbed “a laboratory for healthy living.” Yet what makes the experiment quite so extraordinary is that it is being attempted in Oklahoma.

For the city is one of the nation’s most spread-out urban environments, covering 620 square miles, which means its 600,000 residents rely on cars; there are so many freeways they quip that “you can get a speeding ticket at rush hour.” Not only did the city not have a single bike lane, but also reputedly the highest density of fast food outlets in America, with 40 McDonald’s restaurants alone. It sits in a state seen as cowboy country filled with ultra-conservative Okies, symbolized by The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s definitive 1930s novel about poor farmers driven away by drought and hardship. The economy collapsed again in the 1980s amid the energy crisis, with bank closures and another generation drifting away. 

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