On Wednesday, Governor Bill Haslam traveled to Knoxville to talk about a new initiative to improve the health of the state’s residents. Healthier Tennessee will marshal local public health departments, school systems, healthcare providers and others to encourage Tennesseans to get more exercise and eat healthier foods. Haslam acknowledges asking people to change their lifestyles and habits on the basic level will take a while to accomplish.
“We’re not naïve in thinking that six months from now, we’re going to have dramatically different results," Haslam told reporters in Market Square. "I do think it’s a matter of shifting expectation, and changing the culture in Tennessee.”
The program will be headed by Rick Johnson, former executive vice president of an East Tennessee healthcare company called Provision. He said the involvement of schools will be essential to the effort.
“Over time, we will be working with school systems on a local basis to see an increase in physical activity, and also working to build on the current healthier eating programs that are already in place in schools,” Johnson said.
Johnson's focus on school participation could be critical. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found more than fourteen percent of low-income Tennessee children ages two to four are obese. Tennessee was one of just three states to see obesity rates for those children rise. The state has the fifteenth-highest obesity rate in the United States, according to CDC data.
"[The report] showed we were one of the only states to be going backwards [on childhood obesity]," Haslam said.
Governor Haslam says some of the program’s efforts will begin immediately. Johnson said the effort will focus mainly on three areas: a public information campaign expected to begin in the next 30 to 60 days, implementation of clinically-proven practices to improve health, and measurement and analysis of the results.
Healthier Tennessee has been budgeted $12 million for three years, according to Johnson. $6 million came from a multi-state legal settlement with tobacco companies and allocations from the state budget. The rest came from the private sector and foundations.