Public Policy Forum Blog

Obesity prevention outside of the doctor’s office

On January 25th, the World Health Organization Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity reported an increase in children’s exposure to unhealthy environments across all socioeconomic groups. These same global challenges can be felt close to home in Milwaukee.  The most recent Milwaukee Health Report estimates that 37.6% of the City of Milwaukee's residents are obese, compared to 27.7% in the state of Wisconsin and 27.4% nationally. Since 2009, Milwaukee’s obesity rate has climbed by almost 8%.

So what can be done to reverse these trends in Milwaukee? As this year’s Norman N. Gill Fellow at the Public Policy Forum, I am trying to help answer that question.

The traditional approach to addressing obesity, which focuses on individual behavior change (eat less and exercise more), has proven insufficient. Obesity is a more complex issue. Many health experts have made the point that your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code. Thus, understanding the many social influences on a person’s life is essential to combatting obesity on a population level.  

As an urban planner working on obesity prevention, this idea is essential to the success of my work. To fully understand the alarming rates of obesity in Milwaukee, I must first understand the disparities in race and income as well as the shortcomings of the built environment. If a person does not feel safe going for a walk in his or her neighborhood due to crime, traffic, or the poor quality of sidewalks, how can a physician expect that person to exercise? If a person cannot afford a car and cannot find a grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables within a half-mile of his or her home, how can a physician expect that person to eat healthier?

Thus far in my research, I have found that the challenges to reversing the trends in obesity in Milwaukee are great. On the flip side, I have discovered that there are many assets that can be leveraged in a collaborative way to address such a pressing issue.  These and other findings will be presented in a report due out this summer. In the report, I hope to provide insight into how the city can utilize a collaborative approach with public, private, and non-profit stakeholders to effectively take on obesity.

Chris Spahr