Public Policy Forum Blog

Addressing the Challenge of Obesity in Milwaukee

As the 2015-2016 Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellow, I have spent the past year examining data from various sources to put a finger on how serious of a challenge obesity presents to Milwaukee.  In An Apple a Day, a new report released today by the Public Policy Forum, we conclude that obesity is a serious and substantive public health challenge in the city of Milwaukee and we identify actions that could be taken to strategically address the problem.

In 2014, 37.2% of Milwaukee residents were considered obese, compared to 32.7% in Milwaukee County, 29.3% in Wisconsin, and 27.7% nationally. The data also indicate that the city’s obesity challenge is worsening, as its percentage of obese residents has grown by eight percentage points since 2011.

In addition to analyzing obesity data, our research was greatly augmented by speaking with grassroots and institutional leaders and participating in local initiatives aimed at addressing obesity, such as the Milwaukee Food Council. These discussions led to a better understanding of the lived experiences of Milwaukeeans and why obesity disproportionately affects minority and low-income parts of the city.

We find that areas of the city with low socioeconomic status have the highest rates of obesity. Moreover, racial disparities exist, with the latest data showing that 45.1% of African Americans in Milwaukee suffer from obesity, compared with 31.4% of white residents. Some of these disparities can be attributed to a greater number of fast food outlets in poorer communities combined with fewer supermarkets and fewer opportunities for physical activity and recreation.

Our research also involved looking at peer cities from across the country to understand how they are addressing their own obesity challenges. That analysis helped us to see what a comprehensive local obesity prevention initiative might look like. As a result, we feel that we have proposed real and feasible policy options. 

Chief among them is the need for a strong convener to engage in resource development, outcomes measurement, and advocacy for obesity prevention. Throughout our research process, we heard numerous times that there is a lack of collaboration around addressing obesity, which has resulted in an uncoordinated and unsustainable effort overall. A convening organization could help to address those issues and place obesity prevention on the front burner of citywide public health efforts. We also find that given the Milwaukee Health Department’s competing priorities and stagnant public revenue sources, another organization such as the existing Milwaukee Childhood Obesity Prevention Project may best serve in that convener role.

The report also highlights a number of other obesity prevention efforts that could be utilized in Milwaukee, including:

  • Adopt a Complete Streets Policy that would ensure that local roads are improved to accommodate all users (bicycles, pedestrians, automobiles, and transit vehicles).
  • Expand the Mayor’s HOMEGR/OWN Initiative, which improves food security by re-purposing city-owned vacant lots for food production.
  • Establish nutrition standards for foods and beverages purchased, prepared, or served by City agencies perhaps in coordination with Milwaukee County and/or Milwaukee Public Schools.

While obesity presents a significant challenge to Milwaukee, we feel that the strategies identified in this report represent an opportunity to build on the work of the many organizations already focused on improving nutrition and increasing opportunities for physical activity to create a healthier Milwaukee.

Chris Spahr