I recently attended the North Carolina Institute of Medicine Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit in Raleigh and had the pleasure of hearing our state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services explain to the audience of childhood obesity prevention experts that childhood obesity was a problem.
It’s a rookie mistake I’ve made myself and seen many, many others make: quoting public health statistics (in this case, many of them, and at length) to an audience that lives and breathes those statistics every day.
I could see that the statistics were maybe a little new to Aldona Wos, and for good reason. Since being appointed by Governor Pat McCrory in January of 2013 she’s been too busy putting out fires, many of her own making, to pay much attention to obesity prevention. Unfortunately for those of us who work in chronic disease prevention, the non-emergency nature of our work sometimes causes it to take a backseat to other pressing public health problems such as mailing the wrong Medicaid cards to 50,000 families.
Unfortunately I’m writing this mostly from memory because these were the only notes I could bring myself to scrawl during her speech:
We’d spent the morning hearing the IOM’s new recommended strategies for action to prevent early childhood obesity. A task force of distinguished clinicians, public health experts, academics, and policy analysts had spent months analyzing data, sharing their expertise, and formulating a list of clinical, environmental, community, and policy strategies, each presented in a paper with detailed justification. Many members of that task force were in the audience, and most of the others in the audience were public health practitioners and clinicians specializing in obesity prevention.
After we spent the morning being presented with these experts’ proposed state policy solutions, Wos took to the stage to tell us that “We will not stem the tide with only state or federal solutions. That will not work. All of this starts with personal responsibility and good parenting.” (I’m glad the Raleigh News-Observer was taking notes).
Later, what Secretary Wos told this audience, many of whom had dedicated their lives to understanding obesity from an evidence-based perspective, was that when it comes to obesity prevention, we needed to use “common sense” and follow “the wisdom of our grandmothers.”
She backed up this point with an anecdote illustrating the lack of common sense she’d seen demonstrated by some unfortunate local government entity. She had recently visited a new public facility where nutrition and healthy cooking classes were taught, where she’d been appalled to see a vending machine in plain sight in the lobby selling the usual vending machine junk. Her takeaway and her advice? Move the vending machine somewhere else, where it wasn’t in sight of the healthy cooking class.
Hopefully, her daily emergencies will continue to distract her so much that she’ll stay out of the way of the smart and hard-working DHHS employees who are working to combat obesity. Some of whom have fought uphill battles for years to get the vending machines in North Carolina’s own state government buildings not just out of sight but actually emptied of junk and filled with healthy items.