To reduce Oklahoma’s skyrocketing obesity rate, tens of thousands of families will need to change their daily eating habits. And officials admit that, realistically, it will take more than a five-year pilot program to make that happen.
But Oklahoma State University has a $3.9 million plan to at least get started.
The funding will come from a five-year federal grant, awarded in September, to fight obesity in two rural counties in eastern Oklahoma, including one county that includes a town with the lowest life expectancy in the United States.
In partnership with other organizations, OSU’s Center for Health Systems Innovation will offer cooking classes and distribute healthy food options to Muskogee and Adair counties, where more than 40 percent of the population qualifies as obese.
Officials will recruit primary-care physicians, including doctors at Cherokee Nation clinics, to identify patients most at-risk of obesity-related health problems and refer them to the Curbing Obesity program.
“Ironically, poverty and obesity can go together,” said David Parrack, director of finance and accounting at the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. “The most affordable meals are not necessarily the healthiest.”
To help foster new eating habits in Adair and Muskogee counties, the food bank will offer “Cooking Matters” classes to demonstrate how to make low-cost yet healthy meals that taste great, Parrack said.
“A lot of families don’t necessarily have a history of growing up with home-cooked meals,” he said. “A lot of the food they can afford comes from a box or are high in carbohydrates.”
In the small town of Stilwell, in Adair County near the Arkansas border, residents live an average of just 56.3 years, a life expectancy comparable to the poorest regions of southern Africa. It’s probably not a coincidence that Adair County has one of the highest obesity rates in the state, 40.6 percent. But statewide, more than 1 in 3 people qualify as obese, contributing to Oklahoma’s high rate of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It might take generations to change eating habits in just a couple of counties, much less across the entire state, Parrack said.
“If you can reach one family, you can make a difference in the quality of life of that family,” he said. “And it doesn’t take many families, one by one, to begin making a difference for the community.”
Curbing Obesity will be part of the OSU center’s wider efforts to improve health care in rural Oklahoma. Headquartered in downtown Tulsa, the Center for Health Systems Innovation has grown rapidly since 2014, when Cerner Corporation founder and OSU graduate Neal Patterson donated a database compiled from millions of medical records, giving CHSI an unprecedented ability to examine health-care issues through data analysis.
The center can use that data-driven insight to help identify patients that would benefit the most from the anti-obesity program, said William Paiva, CHSI’s executive director. And Paiva hopes to see a meaningful decline in obesity rates within five years, with the lessons learned in Adair and Muskogee counties then applied to the rest of rural Oklahoma.
“It will take decades or generations to see a change in life expectancy,” he said. “But it starts with curbing obesity.”