Healthy Lifestyles: Fighting Obesity in the American South

Flying into Charlotte, North Carolina for the first time, watching the lush green carpet of vegetation roll out to the horizon, I was struck by the double-edged sword of such abundant and fertile land.  I was there to attend the Southern Obesity Summit as a representative of National PTA, and the term “Plague of Plenty” seemed to resonate as we touched down amid blue skies and a deep, moist green rarely seen in drought-stricken Texas.  As many of you know, the American South is at the frontline of the “Obesity Epidemic,” both in term of it impacts and innovative solutions.  With representatives from government, nonprofits and health-related businesses attending the Summit, there would be lots of opportunities to learn, to collaborate and to be inspired.  Most of all, this year’s focus on youth advocates promised a fresh perspective and, especially for PTA, a new model of engagement to bring more young people into the process.

So, the potential for me to learn and partner, and to bring those connections back to PTA, was not unexpected.  But I will confess to being totally amazed by the level of interest in PTA and the role of parents in the process of fighting obesity.  I could not cross a hallway or lobby without one conversation after another with leaders who were interested in partnering with PTA.  From the USDA to physical activity advocates to health professionals, PTA was seen as a critical partner at every turn.  And, in truth, it is! Because without parent engagement, without the support of families and schools, we will not be able to turn the tide of this “Plague of Plenty.”  The work we do as volunteer advocates and as parents is critical to creating a healthy environment where our children can succeed in school, and in life.  I know those are very big goals, but we can only lead from the front.  Here are a few take-aways you may find useful.

1. The mayor’s roundtable discussion was positively enlightening.  Mayor Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, North Carolina; Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville, Tennessee; and Mayor Chip Johnson of Hernando, Mississippi shared their successes and their motivation for becoming healthy community crusaders.  One thing they all agreed upon: Policymakers (read: politicians) need more than just a personal conviction that healthy communities are more successful; they need STATISTICS.  Changing zoning laws, spending money on parks and green space, requiring government agencies to serve healthy food all require political will and public money, and evidence-based policies are always an easier sell.

2. Engaging not just parents, but also YOUTH, is the way forward in middle and high schools.  Not only is this strategy more effective—city officials, school boards and local principals seem to be much more receptive to student-led initiatives—it also creates the advocates of tomorrow.  Besides, we all know that our young people will not eat their veggies just because we say so, but they will lead the way if we teach them why.

3. Don’t forget local healthcare partners!  Doctors and nurses went out of their way to offer the hand of partnership, and each of them asked only to be invited to share their knowledge and passion for child health with their local schools.  Extend the invitation, please.  This can be as simple as an opportunity to present at a PTA meeting, sponsor a table at a Family Fitness Night, donate to a Fun Run—there are lots of possibilities, and most healthcare providers would jump at the chance to support their local schools and promote their life’s work at the same time.

Next year’s Southern Obesity Summit will be hosted in Nashville, Tennessee, and I hope to be there and to bring you another report of great ideas and wonderful collaborations, maybe set to music.  Would “Plague of Plenty” work as a country song?

Christine Jovanovic, guest PTA One Voice contributor, is the Healthy Lifestyles Chair of the Texas PTA. Contact Christine at

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