Mississippi Town Joins Plan To End Child Obesity

First Lady Michelle Obama announced a nationwide campaign last week to combat childhood obesity. It's dubbed "Let's Move” and it’s aimed at getting children more active and teaching them how to eat healthier. Chip Johnson, mayor of the northwestern Mississippi town of Hernando, talks with host Michel Martin about how his small town is taking on the challenge of childhood obesity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We want to talk more about the first lady's obesity initiative. Nearly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, according to first lady Michelle Obama, who last week unveiled a national initiative called Let's Move. The goal is to change the eating habits of America's youth and get them to exercise more. President Obama backed his wife's campaign with a pledge of as much as a billion dollars a year over the next decade. We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Chip Johnson. He is the mayor of the Mississippi town of Hernando. It's in northwestern Mississippi. He was recognized by the White House for his contributions to providing a healthier environment for children in his town. And he's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mayor CHIP JOHNSON (Hernando, Mississippi): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: I'm sorry that you're snowed in, which is why you're still here, but thank you for staying around to tell us more about it. So, how did you get interested in this issue of childhood obesity?

Mayor JOHNSON: Well, things just happen to you sometimes. And I was elected five years ago on kind of a health platform, parks and walkable communities and things of that nature. So I've always been interested in it because of the people of my town are interested in it. So you have to be interested in what they ask you to do. And then I just found about the childhood obesity problem when I went to speak at the Southern Obesity Conference. And I learned how awful it was. And it just - it's become my new passion. I mean, we're literally killing our children.

MARTIN: It's just something that had not appeared to you, when you - as you -it just wasn't - it was invisible to you, I guess.

Mayor JOHNSON: It was, and I think it is to most of the nation. That's why we're so happy that the first lady has taken this on as her project, just so people understand what's going on.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that you've done in your town? And first of all, tell us a little bit about Hernando. How big is it? Who lives there? What do you all do?

Mayor JOHNSON: We're fairly small. We're 15,000 people, but we're rapidly growing. We were only 3,000 people 20 years ago. So we're growing pretty quickly. We're a suburb of Memphis, so we're up near the border. We have a variety of people who live in our town, like any town. We're very diverse. But we've done quite a few things that are just small things. And like I said the other day, we're only about five percent towards our goal of being a healthy town, but we're doing something. And that's what the first lady kept elaborating, is we just have to get going and do something.

MARTIN: As you know, Mississippi ranks among the highest in the country in measurements of poor health, particularly on children overweight and so forth. Why do you think that is?

Mayor JOHNSON: A lot of it's our culture. We love to eat in the South, and we have great food, but we have to learn to do it at a moderation. A lot of it, too, is we have these food deserts in our state where people just don't have access to healthy foods. They're literally getting their meals from a convenience store. So that's something we have to address. A lot of the schools - not in my area. In our area, our schools are doing well. They're serving healthy meals. But a lot of the schools in our state are not doing that. There are a lot of different reasons that these things are happening, and a lot of it's just our culture. It's just easier to stop by McDonald's on the way home. And I don't think the parents are consciously aware of what they're doing to their children.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that you've done in Hernando that got the White House's attention? Because you were invited on a promise. You were invited because you were already doing things there. So what are some of the things that you've done there that they obviously would hope other people would emulate?

Mayor JOHNSON: Sure. We didn't have a parks department five years ago when I took office. And so we created a parks department, and we put an emphasis on that. And the board of aldermen has been very gracious in allowing us to do these things and funding these things. We put in programming, exercise programming, senior's exercise programming. We have a farmers market now. We have a community garden. We've added a new park to our system. We've upgraded all of our parks. We're putting in walking trails. We've striped bike lanes. Each one of those seems like a small thing, but what's occurring is now we have this culture of a healthy lifestyle being built in our town.

MARTIN: What about sidewalks?

Mayor JOHNSON: We are very fortunate. I was on the board of aldermen before I was mayor. And in 2001, we enacted a law that all new development has to have sidewalks. So, since we've been having this big building boom, miles of sidewalks have been built - at developer's expense, not at taxpayer expense.

MARTIN: But you required them to do it?

Mayor JOHNSON: We did require them. That has to be a policy you have in place.

MARTIN: And I want to ask you about this whole question of the government's role in this, because you are a Republican. It is, you know, assumed that one of the core principles is try to minimize government involvement...

Mayor JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...in the markets and in people's lives wherever possible.

Mayor JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: And has your thinking on this evolved in any way as you've gotten involved in these initiatives?

Mayor JOHNSON: Well, my thought process about government is it's a way of all of us as a community sharing expenses. That's what government is. The people pay their taxes so that I can provide service for them. You know, everybody can't afford to have a policeman and fireman standing in front of their house. So we share those services. So that's something they want to share the expense on and spread it amongst the whole community. So I don't think that goes against Republican principles at all.

MARTIN: Well, there are those who just believe that this administration, in particular, has already gone too far involving the government in individual lives, in pushing, for example, the health care initiative.

Mayor JOHNSON: Well, as a Republican, I'm a fiscal conservative. And when I look at the tax dollars that are being wasted on obesity-related illnesses, I mean, that's totally preventable. And we're spending almost a billion dollars a year in the state of Mississippi. And that's money I'm being taxed to pay. So, theoretically, if we give people the opportunity to be healthier and they become healthier, our taxes could go down.

MARTIN: Are people buying your message on that? Do they - do a lot of people agree with you?

Mayor JOHNSON: They're slowly starting to understand, and it has taken me a while to understand. I've been deep into this. And so that's why I think this is important that the first lady took this on, so people can start the discussion and we can all figure it out together.

MARTIN: Let's just play a short clip of first lady Michelle Obama talking about this initiative at the event that you attended.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: We can't say it enough, because we have to drill this in, that over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in this country have tripled. But the truth is that this numbers don't paint the full picture, and it's important to say this. The words overweight and obese, those words don't tell the full story. Because this isn't about inches and pounds, and it's not about how our kids look. It's about how our kids feel, and it's about how they feel about themselves. It's about the impact that we're seeing that this issue is having on every aspect of their lives.

MARTIN: What was it like to be there? Had you ever been to something like that before?

Mayor JOHNSON: I have never been - I'd been to the White House as a tourist, but it was very humbling to be invited and to go in there and speak and meet the first lady.

MARTIN: Well, what was it like to feel that your efforts have been recognized in this way? How does that - does that help you or hurt you, I guess I want to say. This is kind of at a polarized time politically in this country, where the two parties aren't necessarily agreeing on a whole lot. And I'm just wondering what it was it like to have your efforts recognized in this way, and what difference do you think it might make?

Mayor JOHNSON: I'm not sure if it helps or hurts me personally. But that's not my job. I don't have to - I'm not supposed to worry about that. I'm worried about does it help Hernando. And I think that it absolutely has helped Hernando. You know, when you get to one of these events and you're in the spotlight - I met a lot of people that day. And all of these people have grant moneys, and some of that grant money may follow back to Hernando and to the state of Mississippi to help all of our people. So it's - I think it's a good thing, a very good thing.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I say, you look great yourself...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...you look very - I hope that's not inappropriate...

Mayor JOHNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...but I have to say you look really - you look great. And you look very fit, and if you mind if I ask how you managed to stay healthy, given the rigors of your schedule?

Mayor JOHNSON: I try to make healthy eating choices. And that doesn't mean I don't eat a hamburger occasionally, which I do. But I make good choices most of the time. And I'm not an exercise freak. People think because I'm thin that I am, but I just walk everywhere I go.

MARTIN: And what about that good Memphis barbeque?

Mayor JOHNSON: We go up there and get that Memphis barbeque occasionally.

MARTIN: But you - what? You walk there, you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...try to stay off the lard?

Mayor JOHNSON: You just - you don't eat it everyday. That's the secret.

MARTIN: All right. Well, keep us posted.

Mayor JOHNSON: Okay. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Al right. Chip Johnson is the mayor of Hernando, Mississippi. He was among those invited to participate in the first lady's Let's Move initiative, highlighting efforts to combat childhood obesity. He was recognized for his efforts there, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

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