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Little Rock Healthy Food and Active Living Summit

September 29, 2011
Little Rock, Arkansas

Thank you, I am delighted to be here.

I want thank our friends at Philander Smith College for making this great Summit possible.

I also want to thank Mayor Stodola and Mayor Hays for welcoming us all so warmly here today.

And I want to thank Surgeon General Thompson, not just for his leadership in Arkansas, but also for being such a strong voice in support of obesity prevention across the country.

I’m delighted to see so many people here to talk about how we can promote healthy food and active living – from doctors and nurses to business leaders and educators to parents and children. If we’re going to turn the tide on obesity, we’re going to need to do it together.

The first point I want to make today is that this is a national problem. Thirty percent of Arkansas adults are obese. This sounds high, and it is. But that’s just a couple points higher than the national average. So I want to make it clear that obesity is not Little Rock’s problem or Arkansas’ problem, it’s America’s problem.

In just a generation, adult obesity has doubled and childhood obesity has tripled.

This has huge consequences for health, since obesity is one of the major risk factors for the chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease that now account for seven out of ten deaths in American.

And it also has huge consequences for our economy, since obesity keeps workers off the job, children out of school, and costs our nation a $147 billion every year.

That’s the bad news. The good news is we have a growing understanding of what’s causing this epidemic.

One big factor is that our lifestyles have changed. Many of us are eating bigger portions and more unhealthy foods. We’re snacking more and exercising less. Our kids are spending more time in front of the TV or computer screen and less time playing outside.

We also know that these behaviors are not set in stone. People can change and they often want to change – but there’s a limit to what they’re willing or able to do.

They’ll buy healthy produce if they have a supermarket or farmer’s market in their neighborhood – but not if they have to take a bus all the way across town. Parents will encourage their kids to play outside – but not if the local park is dangerous.

So one of the biggest steps we can take to reduce the burden of obesity and chronic disease is making it easier for people to make the healthy choice. And over the last two years, that’s what this Administration has joined with partners across the country to do.

For example, we know that around the country, there are communities like Little Rock that have developed their own innovative approaches for promoting healthy lifestyles.

I’ve visited many of them over the last two and half years, from an urban farm in Boston where students are growing fresh fruits and vegetables that are sold at local farmers markets, to a school in Louisville where they don’t just have gym class, but have actually brought physical exercise into the classroom.

These are some of the most promising approaches we have for promoting healthy lifestyles. So what we‘ve done in our department is provide a major investment through the Recovery and Affordable Care Acts to help these communities expand their efforts and eventually become models for the rest of the country.

North Little Rock is one of the communities that has received funds under this initiative. And in just a short time, they’ve made great progress. With the support of the City Council and Mayor Hays, North Little Rock has become a “Fit 2 Live” city, committing on a community-wide level to improve their health.

They’ve adopted a Complete Streets policy to ensure that all new and updated streets incorporate features such as bike lanes and safe sidewalks. They’re creating incentives for supermarkets to open in low-income and underserved neighborhoods. And just recently, they launched the city’s first Arkansas Certified Farmers Market.

This is how progress happens. A few more children decide to walk or ride their bike to school, instead of getting a ride, because now it’s safe. A few more families decide to prepare a healthy meal for dinner, instead of picking up some fast food take out, because now it is easier to pick up fresh ingredients nearby.

Eventually, these changes add up, and you get a healthier community.

That’s why we need to keep supporting and studying these community efforts to identify which ones work and then help them spread to cities and towns across the country. And we in the federal government will continue to do everything we can to help.

In fact, earlier this week, we handed out $103 million in Community Transformation Grants to support additional prevention projects in 61 communities across the country.

But we can’t stop there. Our communities must be healthy in order for us to lead healthier lives. But good health also means getting preventive care like check-ups and regular vaccinations. And yet for countless Americans, that care is out of reach, either because it’s too expensive or there aren’t enough primary care providers in their community.

We’re working to change that with the Affordable Care Act. Today, thanks to the health care law, millions of Americans can get key preventive services at no additional cost. That includes vaccinations and counseling for chronic conditions like obesity, smoking, and depression. And it also includes a BMI screening, which we know is one of the best tools for helping parents help their kids maintain a healthy weight.

We’re also investing in our primary care workforce. These are the people who help patients get preventive care and make sure our children get their immunizations. They’re the ones who help patients manage their blood pressure and cholesterol – and who can connect a patient with a nutritionist to set up an exercise plan.

So we’re expanding programs like the National Health Service Corps, which enables doctors to get some help repaying their loans if they agree to practice in an underserved community. Here in Arkansas over 125 Service Corps clinicians practice medicine in the rural and urban areas that need care the most. And we know that more than 80 percent of Corps members stay in their location after their service is done, providing care to their communities for years.

We’re also investing to expand the capacity of America’s community health centers, one of our most successful models of low-cost, high-quality primary care. Over the last two and a half years, we’ve provided the resources to help community health centers treat and care for an additional two and a half million patients.

Here in Arkansas, the number of patients served by these centers rose 20 percent between 2008 and 2010. This means that more Arkansans are getting the kind of care and support that can help them stay fit, healthy, and out of the hospital.

In all these efforts, we firmly believe that no single actor can face these challenges alone. The federal government can’t do it alone. Schools can’t do it alone. And the private sector can’t do it alone. This is a society-wide problem and if we’re going to solve it, we’re going to need partnerships that span every level of government and public and private sectors.

That’s why earlier this year, our Department released the first ever National Prevention Strategy, which includes actions that anyone can take to help Americans stay healthy and fit.

We’re also reaching out ourselves to form partnerships. The First Lady’s Let’s Move Campaign, which is seeking to end childhood obesity within a generation, is just one example of this.

Over the last year, school food suppliers, the beverage industry, major retailers and restaurant chains and providers have all signed on to Let’s Move with the shared goal of tackling childhood obesity.

One of our most valuable partners has been Walmart, which has launched an effort to offer more nutritious food, lower their cost, and provide millions of consumers with better information about healthy food options.

Walmart knows, as the First Lady does and HHS does, that keeping people healthy is a smart investment. We need partners like these -- large and small, public and private -- to step up in communities across the country and commit to making healthy living a top priority. Everyone can do their part to support healthier communities, and I encourage everyone here to use this event as an opportunity to start sharing your ideas and building new partnerships.

We all have a responsibility to join this effort because it affects all of us. Every one of us knows someone who’s suffering from a preventable chronic disease. And we all bear the burden of soaring health care prices and lost productivity.

But with these major challenges, comes a great opportunity. We know that with only modest improvements to how we approach prevention and treatment over the next 12 years -- like improved diet, more exercise, and better care for Americans -- we could avoid 40 million cases of chronic disease as a nation. That would save our nation more than a trillion dollars a year.

And the single most important factor in achieving these savings will depend on reducing obesity rates.

Health is the foundation of our prosperity. Healthy adults are more productive workers. Healthy children are better students. Healthy families can make bigger contributions to their communities.

We have a long way to go to becoming a healthier country. But if we continue to work together and follow the lead of community leaders around the country, nothing is beyond our reach.

Thank you.