How does the ‘Fattest City in America’ turn things around?

This author goes on a search to find what, if anything, is being done to save her Indiana hometown.

My hometown is drowning in high fructose corn syrup.

Recently, I found out that Evansville, Ind., the city that I called home for 18 years, was ranked “The Fattest City in America.”

What happened to you, my sweet River City? Shouldn’t this be a distinction reserved for someplace in Mississippi? (Zing!)

But obesity isn’t a laughing matter. It’s downright deadly.

With nearly 38 percent of the population obese (with a BMI of 30 or greater), that means four out of every 10 residents have increased their chances for heart disease, heart attacks and diabetes.

But it gets worse: Is Evansville happy about it?

Take a look at this newspaper headline: “Yes, we’re obese but happy…and it’s a great place to live: Evansville, America’s fattest city, defends itself.”

How could this be true?!

Though I’m 291 miles away from home, it was time to see what the two main hospitals, other health organizations, and city officials were doing about our obesity crisis. Will my hometown continue to expand its “fat and happy” lifestyle, or can the community figure out ways to trim its collective waistline?

How one hospital accommodates bigger patients

Sam Rogers, PR manager for Deaconess Hospital, admits the city has a problem—one that his hospital faces every day.

“When you lived here, you probably hung around with healthy people,” Rogers says. “But when I’m walking around the halls, here’s what I see: bigger wheelchairs, bigger beds, and bigger ambulances. We had to get a lift team to move bigger patients.”

And that has cost the hospital some money.

Surgery tables have been purchased for heavier patients. All commodes now have to be floor mounted. A normal sized wheel chair costs $250, but a bigger one costs $450. The hospital has 100 of each kind of chair.

“The cost of our lift team is $150,000 annually, which theoretically, we make up in fewer workers’ comp claims for nurse back injuries,” Rogers says.

Deaconess isn’t addressing the problem on social media, but talks about wellness during health fairs and “lunch and learns,” and by sponsoring healthy shopping programs. It also promotes its employee wellness program and does a farmer’s market at the hospital six months out of the year.

Rogers says it’s important to continue to provide people with education and information, along with participating in community-wide initiatives to promote healthful living.

But back at the hospital…

“Our bariatric business is booming,” Rogers says. “We have three to five surgeries each week.”

Practicing wellness for hospital employees

Amy Lutzel, a health advocate specialist for St. Mary’s Healthy Lives Fitness center, says she was “really embarrassed” when she found out about the Gallup poll.

“It’s not good,” Lutzel says. “But it makes me glad I got into the field. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Working out at the fitness center, which is open to the public and employees, is one way to tackle the obesity problem. Within the center, there are opportunities for group and personal training, dietician consultations, and smoking cessation programs. About 500 members belong to the fitness center.

“Your health is the important thing—it’s above everything else, even money,” Lutzel says. “If you don’t have good health, you’re going to see a lot of problems show up later in life.”

The hospital is also concentrating on healthful eating initiatives.

St. Mary’s Hospital wanted to improve its dining options. Each day, people who eat at the hospital’s cafeteria have the option of selecting “Healthy Upgrade” meal of the day, which is given at a 50 percent discount. If you purchase the “Healthy Upgrade” meal, you’ll also receive $1 food voucher for the hospital’s farmer’s market on Thursdays.

In June, 750 employees took advantage of the lunch program.

And outside the hospital, there are a lot of fast food options in the city—a lot.

Known as a test market for the restaurant industry, the city boasts burgers, tacos and pizza joints everywhere you look.

Childhood flashback: Ever heard of the McDiner? Did you ever eat pizza at McDonald’s? Nope? Ah, that was just one of the many perks about dining in Evansville: We were guinea pigs.

Let’s not forget about the week-long West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. Though Evansville might not have a regional dish, this is our week-long binge fried food fest, filled with fritters and fried brain sandwiches. It’s a festival that’s close to the city’s heartstrings, but it’s clogging up our arteries.

Vickie Detroy, director of Planetree Services at St. Mary’s, did an educational flyer last year about how to find healthy food items at the festival.

She came back with only three options.

Outside of the hospital: How the YMCA encourages fitness

Evansville’s YMCA wanted to do its part to help the community get fit. Recently, it started a seven week “Jump Start” walking program that’s free to everyone. Participants start out walking one mile, but by the end of the program, are able to walk three miles. More than 300 people participated in a recent session.

Mardi File, the director of strategic health initiatives at the YMCA, said the Gallup poll is a wake-up call for Evansville.

“People don’t put themselves first here,” File says. “They’re not taking the time for themselves and exercising with their family. Instead, it’s easier to pick up a video and eat fast food.”

Does File think that people from Evansville can really be “obese and happy”?

“I would be surprised if that’s reality,” File says. “Anybody who has struggled with their weight may say that on the outside, but on the inside, they want to be healthier for their friends and family. It’s a defense mechanism.”

Can a grant help Evansville get on the right path?

In March of 2010, Vanderburgh County (Evansville is the county seat) was given a 2.5 million grant called “Communities Putting Prevention to Work,” which is awarded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Fifty communities across the country have been given a similar grant.

According to the CDC website, this is where the money will be directed:

Vanderburgh County will expand the reach of its HEROES healthy schools initiative, based on CDC’s Coordinated School Health Model, by adding more schools within the public system and introducing the initiative within several of the Catholic Diocese schools. On the broader community level, the Movement initiative will negotiate healthy vending options, post signage in walkable areas and point-of-decision prompts in high-traffic areas, support breastfeeding in the workplace, and develop a Safe Routes to School plan.

Movement involves 100 local organizations, both hospitals, the Mayor’s office, and the school system. Andrea Hays, Movement director, says this will help spearhead new healthful policies, increase healthier food options in the city, and build better infrastructure, such as bike lines and walking paths.

The Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana plans to get involved in the Movement initiative, too.

Matt Meadors, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana, is working together with six other chamber of commerce CEOs to talk about the issue. This regional chamber alliance plans to meet with the Movement initiative about how the business community can help.

In the future, Meadors says the chamber alliance might conduct a survey of the business community and find examples of companies that are doing health and wellness programs for employees and use them as examples to other businesses.

“This survey is a wake-up call to the community,” Meadors says. “From a business-community perspective, obesity can drive up health insurance costs to businesses and impact productivity and economic development.”

Hays says it’s important for people in the city to become more active.

“The community is realizing that it has to be more pedestrian and bike friendly,” Hays says. “When you plan a community and develop it in a certain way, it’s hard to retro-fit it and develop something new.”

Childhood example: I lived about a half mile away from my high school, but it never occurred to my friends and me to walk or ride our bikes to school. Now, living in Chicago, I walk three miles home from work about every day, without thinking much of it.

“We want to create change to make Evansville a healthier place to live,” Hays says. “That you, young professionals like yourself, will consider coming back home someday.”

Oh, Evansville…

Well, I have to admit, it’s true: No matter what the scales say, the people in Evansville really are nice.

Topics: PR

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