Let’s CHANGE Summit Tackles Obesity Epidemic


Healthy Memphis Common Table continued with its mission to improve the health of people in the Memphis area by confronting the area’s obesity crisis at its recent Let’s CHANGE Summit.

The organization’s Let’s CHANGE (Commit to Healthy Activity and Nutrition Goals Every day) program is a partnership between the Shelby County Health Department and more than 37 businesses and community organizations dedicated to fighting childhood and family obesity. The Let’s CHANGE pilot project includes five pediatric practices, the YMCA of the Mid-South and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to address family obesity head-on using tools to change diet and exercise patterns.

Physical inactivity and obesity have been linked to several serious health conditions.

“Obesity is complicit in a number of chronic diseases including, but not limited to, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, osteoarthritis and even cancer. If we can begin to do something about the obesity epidemic, then we are also addressing the health costs associated with chronic diseases,” said Connie Binkowitz, Healthy Memphis Common Table’s project manager of equity and neighborhood transformation.

Healthy eating and active living are key concepts in dealing with obesity, and HMCT – founded in 2003 as a nonprofit by a group of volunteers concerned with the declining health of Memphians – provides nutritional education, encourages daily physical activity and teaches families how to grow, eat and prepare better foods.

At the summit held in late October, the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce unveiled its latest report, which found improving numbers for the area in regard to obesity but still left a lot of room for further progress.

After climbing to a historical peak of nearly 37 percent in 2010, the obesity rate in Shelby County dropped from 2010 to 2011. For extreme obesity rate, Tennessee has improved from third highest in 2009 to eighth in 2010 and now 15th for 2011.

“There’s some improvement in the numbers relative to the obesity epidemic both in the state of Tennessee and also Shelby County,” said Binkowitz, who sees the improving numbers as one indicator that community involvement is starting to pay off and show results. “There has been a collective impact here thanks to many different organizations and different types of intervention happening at the same time. We are starting to see a picture of change. The numbers are starting to show promise because so many things are going on in the community, from farmers markets to bike lanes to trails to educational programming that teaches children.”

“If we can begin to do something about the obesity epidemic, then we are also addressing the health costs associated with chronic diseases.”

–Connie Binkowitz
Healthy Memphis Common Table

But more work needs to be done because Tennessee still ranked fifth highest in overweight rate in 2011 (fourth for 2010), after ranking a very respectable 30th for highest overweight rate just 15 years ago.

The challenge of confronting obesity is made even more daunting when considering that Tennessee ranks as the second-most inactive state. Other states that rate high for inactivity include Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Numerous recent and ongoing community changes are encouraging healthier lifestyles, including the addition of new bike lanes across the city, the opening of the Shelby Farms Greenline in 2010 and the addition of several new farmers markets.

“In the past year or so, the number of farmers markets across the area has risen tremendously so there is more access to healthier foods,” Binkowitz said.

The summit’s keynote speaker, Dr. Jon McCullers, laid out an early concept for a new Center for Excellence in pediatric childhood obesity, which would be built under a partnership between Methodist Hospital and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the University of Tennessee Department of Health Sciences. McCullers is the chair of pediatrics at Le Bonheur and pediatrician-in-chief at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

HMCT also released its first-ever Healthy Eating Active Living report as part of its Take Charge for Better Health Series. The report, which is available on the Healthy Memphis Common Table website, looks at recent environmental changes, projects, policies, policy discussions and research completed to help people make the healthy choice the easy choice in Memphis and Shelby County.