Mayor-elect wants obesity task force for Anniston
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Sep 10, 2012 | 7170 views |  0 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston Mayor-elect Vaughn Stewart says he wants to create a task force to address rising rates of obesity.

Moreover, he'll likely find general agreement among members of the next Anniston City Council, regardless of who wins the Oct. 9 runoff, on the causes of the obesity problem and the city's role in helping to fix it.

"I think many of the resources we need are already there," Stewart said. "We just need some coordination."

According to statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control, rates of overweight and obesity have jumped sharply in the past 30 years, with Alabama often leading the pack. More than 30 percent of Alabamians over age 25 are obese, according to CDC numbers, and more than 10 percent have some form of diabetes.

Stewart said that in the first few months after his swearing in, he wants to create an obesity task force, one which would likely be temporary but would at least create a plan to address the problem in a systematic way.

"Honestly, I don't have a plan for this issue, but I think we have the right people to address this," he said. Stewart said such task force would likely include officials from the Parks and Recreation Department, school nutritionists and other with expertise in the field.

Ward 3 Councilman-elect Seyram Selase said he'd support the task force idea.

"I'd like to see the city do what we can to help with this," he said. Selase said a lack of healthy food options was part of the problem, therefore he wants to find a way to attract businesses such as health-food stores.

Attempts to reach Ward 1 Councilman Jay Jenkins, who won his first full term in office in last month's election, were not successful. But Jenkins, who was appointed to the council to fill a vacancy earlier this year, has already given an indication of where he stands on the problem.

In June, Jenkins proposed a "complete streets" policy — a non-binding resolution urging the city to build sidewalks and bike lanes where possible. Jenkins told The Star in June that he was motivated partly by residents' need for more exercise — and also by the need to better market the city to the runners and bikers who come here for major races.

“I’m a proponent of ecotourism,” Jenkins said in June. “We need to take advantage of the events that are already swirling around us.”

All four of the candidates facing opposition in the Oct. 9 runoff agreed that the city needs to be more walkable.

"I absolutely support complete streets," said Ward 4 Council runoff candidate Millie Harris. Harris said maintaining a healthy weight is a struggle — she said she's put on weight during the campaign, due to the hectic schedule — and the city needs to work to make exercise a part of daily life. If people could safely walk to their local store, she said, that would help.

"Exercise needs to be like brushing your teeth," she said. "It needs to be something you do without even thinking about it."

Sitting Ward 4 Councilman Marcus Dunn agreed. Dunn, who's in the runoff against Harris, has already worked with city officials to look at the feasibility of adding sidewalks to new roads in Golden Springs. That community, which makes up much of Ward 4, has only a few sidewalks along major thoroughfares.

Dunn said the city also needs to make more use of the exercise opportunities it already has.

"We need to continue to make it affordable for people to use the aquatic center," Dunn said, referring to the recently completed fitness center and pool at McClellan.

Ward 2 runoff candidate Sheffton Goodson said he's sure the obesity epidemic is already having an effect on Anniston.

"I work at a funeral home, and I see what's coming in," he said. "It's not just cancer that's killing people."

Goodson said the city should work on raising awareness of the problem among young people.

"Once you're not eating healthy, bad habits are hard to break," he said.

A more walkable community is part of the solution, Goodson said. A stronger economy wouldn't hurt, he said.

"One problem is that you've got so many people unemployed," he said. "They're at home, they're stressed out, and they're eating more than they should."

Goodson's runoff opponent, David Reddick, said he sees obesity as yet another offshoot a larger problem in Anniston — poverty.

"Healthier food is more expensive," he said. "People are buying fast food, and junk food, because it's what they can afford."

Reddick said he'd like to see the city take an approach similar to anti-obesity push by first lady Michelle Obama.

"I'd like to get nutrition coaches out there to teach people," he said. "I'd like to have 'get moving' coaches to get people to be more active."

Reddick said he'd also like to issue city-wide challenges to get people up and moving. One idea would be to urge people to use the stairs when they're in a building with an elevator. Teams could challenge each other to see who could climb the most flights in a year.

Reddick said he has been campaigning for the hiring of two city grant writers who could bring in state and federal funds for city projects, including an anti-obesity drive.

All the councilmen and council candidates took note of Anniston's existing appeal to bikers and runners and the need to build on that reputation.

Selase said Anniston has the ability to be the first place to turn the obesity problem around.

"We should work with not just our city government, but county government and our Alabama government to come up with ideas," he said. "Maybe in Anniston we can come up with some option no one's ever tried before. Maybe we can become the Model City again, the one other cities follow."

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