A new ten-year plan to encourage Arkansans to get healthier is pooling the resources of public and private entities in order to combat rising obesity in the state. Governor Asa Hutchinson and other public health advocates and officials revealed the initiative Wednesday.
The “Healthy Active Arkansas” plan introduces a framework to encourage access to more nutritional food options in schools and public facilities, as well as access to spaces in which to exercise.
“This is not a one-time, we're going to have a news conference on this and forget about it. This is not a public service announcement,” said Governor Hutchinson.
“People in Arkansas sometimes have bad habits through tradition or just not understanding what needs to be done or not having the ability to have an annual checkup....We need to provide the means, the encouragement, the leadership so that [people] can have the quality of life that they each desire,” he said.
The announcement comes nearly 10 years after anti-obesity laws were passed in the Arkansas legislature under the then-Governor Mike Huckabee administration. Act 1220 of 2003 mandated the measurement of Body Mass Indexes (BMI) of schoolchildren as a means of raising awareness of childhood obesity. Despite this, childhood obesity has not fallen in subsequent years and adult obesity has risen in the state. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Arkansas had the highest adult obesity rate of any state in the country in 2014 at 35.9 percent.
Governor Hutchinson said the new initiative may again spur new legislative proposals in the next legislative session. He said any initial cost from the plan should be covered by savings to the Medicaid program resulting from anticipated lower healthcare costs of healthier beneficiaries. According to a packet explaining the plan, 40 percent of annual obesity-related expenses in Arkansas are financed by Medicare and Medicaid.
Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe said the goal of the plan is to create a framework for employers, schools and others can use.
“So whether you're in the public sector or the private sector, we have an initiative to engage the citizens of our state and improve health for all of Arkansas,” Bledsoe said.
The officials detailed nine priority areas in the framework. They include nutritional standards in schools, government and private sector, environments, physical education in schools, healthy worksites, reduced consumption of sugary beverages, emphasis on breatfeeding and access to healthy foods.
Pearl McElfish of the University of Arkansas For Medical Sciences said the plan provides tools that can also address the specific needs of minority populations, particularly the Marshellese and Latino populations of Northwest Arkansas.
“We can focus a lot on individual behavior and how to help people make individual behavorial changes, but what we know from research is that some of the best changes can come from structures and environments and policies,” McElfish said.
Although, the framework is intended to encourage access to public spaces and encourage activity, Willie McGhee of the Stop the Violence Coalition and the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, who attended the announcement said the plan does not appear to address violence as a public health issue. He said safety, particularly in African American Neighborhoods, should also be a concern.
“Maybe [we can] help these kids learn how to grow gardens or safe areas like playground areas or basketball areas or parks where they can feel safe , where they can play and exercise,” he said.
To lean more about the Healthy Active Arkansas plan, visit this page.