I’m from Memphis, the most obese city in America. In 2011, the Gallup Poll redefined Memphis as more than just the home of the blues, Elvis, and pork barbecue. They ranked us as the number one most obese city, thank ya, thank ya very much. With 12.4% of the Memphians diagnosed with diabetes, 29.7% of Memphians defined as obese, and only 56.7% who eat produce on a regular basis, we took the cake and ate it all. But we’re fighting our title with a local fist.
CNN recently posted an article detailing Memphis’ newfound legs, pumping hearts, and conscious palates. Many Memphians have realized that their weight, sadly, is becoming the norm in their city, state, and now nationwide. With that in mind, the local fight now stresses a holistic approach, as the CEO of Healthy Memphis Common Table agreed in the CNN article, saying “battling the bulge requires help from many sectors.” The article also pays homage to the church movements, such as the Church Health Wellness Center, that strives to educate the community about health and nutrition. Complete with a gym, diabetes education, cooking classes, and more, CHC Wellness facility is an exemplar of how to shed the notorious number one. Beyond this article, I have witnessed the additions and subtractions that are refiguring Memphis’ waistline.
The Boys and Girls Club of Memphis operates a Kids Café serving daily lunches as well as hot, nutritious dinner twice a week. As an after school education center, the BGC teaches children character development, life skills, and fitness. The Healthy Life Skills program strives to increase physical activity, encourage healthy eating, and educate about nutrition. Fun fact: the students at the BGC have become a staple at two farmer’s markets around town selling their homemade hummus with some southern charm. Local people and local minds built the foundation of this community wide approach to fighting childhood obesity.
Tony Geraci, the Memphis City Schools Director of Nutrition Services since 2010, has revamped the school lunch system by planting twenty learning gardens for schools, writing a locally inspired menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and instituting “cost-saving strategies and logistics partnerships with FedEx Corp. and AutoZone Inc. (Memphis based companies) to provide a long-term sustainability plan for MCS’ new nutrition programs.” Geraci has a multifaceted approach to changing public school food. According to The Commercial Appeal, “he’s out to inject adrenaline into the locavore movement.” Geraci is filling stomachs with local solutions.
The city has reconverted an old railroad line into a bike path, the Greenline, stretching about six miles from Midtown to Shelby Farms Park, with plans to extend the bike path to downtown. Bike lanes on streets followed the Greenline craze, providing pro cyclists and wanna-bes a way to use their legs as transportation. The Greenline has provided me with exercise and endless people watching; from the teenagers teetering on clown bikes and the man being pulled on roller skates by his three poodles, to the professional cyclists making everyone look like toddlers on tricycles and the newlyweds attempting to hold hands while scootering, entertainment is readily available.
And the changes just keep coming as swiftly as the Mississippi River flows. Healthy vending machines have replaced the normal offerings in about twenty machines around the city. Companies like Get Fresh Memphis are focusing on providing healthy, prepared meals for busy families. Around eleven farmers market’s are open throughout the year and dot the map in neighborhoods previously lacking fast access to fresh foods. Sure enough, waistlines are thinning.
Yet, this past year was an anomaly. Future progress is needed to support the strides taken and to further fight obesity in the city. Beyond the scope of Memphis, obesity remains both a health and fiscal problem. “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health predict that half of all American adults will be obese by 2030…obesity-related illness will add $48 billion a year in health care costs over the next 20 years.” Memphians are not the only ones at risk. We are not the only ones who can utilize local resources, ranging from produce to church congregations. Every city can have a local movement. Just look around.
Don’t call us Austin or San Francisco just yet. Don’t visit expecting to walk around the city like you can in New York City. But don’t forget our effort.
The city of Memphis will never look like a giant Whole Foods, rampant with vegans and vegetarians. No, we like our barbecue too much. But we are learning to love our barbecue with a little less white bread. We’re putting a fork in the salad and leaving the fries untouched. We’re correcting the waitress when she assumes our beverage of choice is sweet tea. We’re sharing recipes for fruit salad, not banana pudding.
Come visit us in five years and tell me that, “one in three white women and one in two black women in Memphis are obese.” Maybe it’s true now, but we are on the move. Each time I return home to Memphis, I see a few more people in the fresh produce section of Kroger and far fewer people in line at Gus’ Fried Chicken, as heart stoppingly good as it may be. Obesity, you’ve got a target on your back the size of the Mississippi River. Diabetes, you’re being chased by the starting Grizzlies players. Hypertension, you’ve been sniffed out by the ducks of the Peabody hotel. Memphis has zeroed in on you and isn’t blinking until you’re gone. We ain’t gonna be number one for much longer.