You can tell a lot about a place by looking at its people. There are certain things one will notice walking around town – particularly about hairstyles and wardrobe selections that seem to say, “only in Pueblo.”
But there’s another characteristic that’s a lot more disturbing; we’re fat.
A recent nationwide survey found that, once again, Colorado is the healthiest state in the county. And once again, Pueblo did little, if anything, to contribute to that. We remark about feeling as if we’re an island set adrift by the rest of the state here in Pueblo sometimes, but then something like this comes along to show us just how out of touch we really are.
And the disconnect literally can be a killer.
I spoke with Cathy Dehn, the LiveWell Pueblo Project Coordinator for Pueblo County, by phone recently about the obesity problem in Pueblo, and about what’s being done to address it.
So why does Pueblo stand alone in being so pervasively overweight in such a healthy state, and with so many natural resources seemingly at our disposal. One clear connection is poverty. Historically, when a community has a lower median income, the residents weigh more, generally due to the fact that cheaper food often isn’t the healthiest for us. But there’s more going on than just that.
We’re a sedentary community. Although we have the mountains nearby, a fantastic reservoir and some pretty decent trails around town, we don’t exercise as much as other Colorado communities. Part of this, I think, is because in the past, we haven’t had to. If you perform back-breaking work all day long tending to crops or on the line at the steel mill, you burn enough calories that working out is superfluous. So it’s not a part of the culture. But as jobs have become more automated, we’ve become less active, with no history of extracurricular activity beyond high school sports to fill the void.
Finally, there’s the matter of regional diet, which is related to the manual labor culture described above. If you’re performing hard physical labor all day, you need food that will stick to your ribs, with plenty of calories, protein and even fat to sustain you until the workday is done. And although we’ve reduced our overall expenditure of calories in an average day, the diet and portion sizes have not adjusted accordingly.
I spoke with Cathy Dehn, the LiveWell Pueblo Project Coordinator for Pueblo County by phone recently about these issues and what is being done about it.
We’re trying to slowly change the culture,” she says. “What’s happened is people are less physically active and not eating as healthy. By giving opportunities and exposure to fresh fruits, vegetables and opportunities for activity, we’re taking small steps in a longer-range goal.”
Asked if she’s seen progress toward the goal of reducing obesity in Pueblo in the several years the government has been trying to intervene, she was frank. “We haven’t yet made an impact on obesity stat,” she says, alluding to the deep cultural systems they find themselves up against. “We’re just now scratching the surface.”
All due credit to the county for trying, but the fact is you can lead a person to a treadmill, but you can’t make them walk.
For five years, we benefitted from a federal grant that funded our Steps to a Healthier Pueblo initiative. Unfortunately, the grant was not renewed, but the effects of the program remain throughout town. Most efforts focused on training schools, workplaces and health care providers about how best to address the issue in their own environments.
There are other examples of programs put into place that now have been picked up and continued by local partnerships, like the riverwalk steps program, which was started through the Steps grant, but which now is sustained by community partnerships, including the HARP Authority.
Other efforts include research, planning and publicity about increasing the walkability and bikeability of our county. Since some do not have the means to drive out to the mountains or the reservoir, we have to bring opportunities for more activity right to the neighborhoods. There are also programs emphasizing diabetes prevention, tobacco use reduction and ongoing clinics for healthcare providers.
If there’s a true frontline in the battle of the bulge, though, it’s in the schools. Decades ago, when public schools struggled to make ends meet, partnerships were forged with private vending and other foodservice companies to bring in packaged food for sale, with a portion of the revenues returning to the school coffers. Ironically, the sale of sodas, sugary snacks and even meals prepared by fast food joints, helped subsidize the athletic programs.
Now, we’re seeing the generations-long effects of such choices, but we’re so dependent on the revenues these contracts create that we’re not sure how to wean ourselves off. Unfortunately, it’s taking federal intervention in the form of phase-out plans for vending machines and fast food contracts to work our way out of the mire we created.
Fat kids become fat adults, and generally, they raise more fat kids. If we’re going to ever get the upper hand in this war, it will hinge on the battles fought for the health of our children. And the consequences reach far beyond the stigma of Pueblo as a community behind the times. Our health care services and costs suffer as a result, as does the economy as a whole.
One of the biggest challenges I see is getting economic development groups like the Chambers of Commerce and PEDCO actively on board. The problem is, they have a conflict of interest; their own members benefit from things like the school vending contracts and restaurants purveying massive amounts of comfort food we don’t need.
So what’s it going to be? Will we continue to limp along, playing the role of state whipping boy, or will we take responsibility as a community to whip our flabby asses into shape?
Originally published in PULP.