According to the United States CIA, the U.S. has the 12th highest obesity rate in the world as of 2016, with about 32.6% of the population considered obese.

While this is an issue across the entire country, the areas most affected by obesity are the South (33.6%) and the Midwest (33.1%), based on research done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Wisconsin in particular had an obesity rate of around 31.4% in 2016 as reported by the CDC, and based on a report by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health the number had increased to around 41% of adults in 2018.

The CDC defines obesity as having a weight above the healthy range for a particular height which is commonly measured using a person’s Body Mass Index. A higher BMI indicates potentially being overweight or obese, whereas a low BMI can indicate being underweight. Obesity can also lead to bigger health issues such as Type 2 diabetes or heart disease. According to the CDC, the medical costs for adults associated with obesity is estimated at about $147 billion as of 2009.

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The Wisconsin Health Atlas reported from 2015 to 2016, 41.2% of adults and 14.8% of children in Wisconsin had obesity. A map of obesity rates among Wisconsin citizens by zip code in 2018 shows a large divide in obesity rates between rural and urban areas. According to the map, St. Nazianz, a rural area around Manitowoc, was reported to have the highest obesity rate among adults in Wisconsin. The area with the lowest obesity rates was right outside of Madison, an urban location.

Healthy Kids Collaborative staff member, Shawn Koval spoke on the causes for difference in obesity rates across Wisconsin.

“Outside of Madison and Milwaukee, [Wisconsin] is largely a rural state [which] by definition [means] there’s more wide-open space so people have to drive from place to place,”Koval said. “They have less access to healthy food. Rising income inequality and increasing poverty in the state of Wisconsin is an existential threat to the health of our communities”

The United States Department of Agriculture describes food deserts as areas within the United States that have minimal access to food that is healthy and affordable. According to the USDA, these factors result in typically low-income neighborhoods being known for having higher obesity rates, which is what has happened in many rural towns in Wisconsin. The USDA added the counterpart to food deserts are food oases, which are described as urban areas with highly accessible and affordable healthy food options.

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The State of Wisconsin is on its second Nutrition, Physical Activity & Obesity State Plan developed by the Department of Health Services. The State Plan seeks to support a comprehensive effort to prevent obesity through environmental, policy and systems changes and partnering with organizations, schools and communities throughout the state. Important goals of the State Plan are to promote healthy eating and physical activity among children.

University of Wisconsin freshman Charlotte Nielsen said she grew up outside Milwaukee with a family who all live very healthy lifestyles. She added that though her living situations have changed, as she now lives in on-campus housing rather than with her family, her eating habits have stayed relatively constant.

“Almost every single night my family made food together at home,” Nielsen said. “While it’s harder to do that while living in the dorms, I try to pick foods from the dining hall or grocery store that are less processed and I know will make me feel better.”

Healthy eating is just one part of attempting to combat the obesity epidemic. Healthy Kids Collaborative Program Manager Julia Stanley said they are focused on policy systems and environmental change to guide Wisconsin residents into a healthier future. 

The 5-2-1-0 Initiative is a national framework that has been brought to Dane County by Healthy Kids Collaborative and some of the organization’s partners. According to the website, the main goal of the program is to encourage healthier behaviors in kids around the area. This framework provides guidelines for children’s daily servings of fruits and vegetables (five), amount of TV or computer screen time (two hours), physical activity (one hour) and sugary drinks (zero).

“It was very much educational material and good for people to know what to aim for, but [the organization] also feels like we have a commitment to working to make sure that kids have access in neighborhoods to those things as well,” Stanley said.

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The State Plan also includes in its vision statements that communities and neighborhoods will be built to make it easier to be physically active and schools will increase student activity levels. Providing children with access to playgrounds through joint-use agreements with organizations that have facilities and encouraging at least 60 minutes of physical activity at school each day are key strategies.

Dane County Safe Routes to School is an initiative through Healthy Kids Collaborative to create safer ways for children to be able to walk to school instead of having to take the bus or drive. Koval, coordinator of the Safe Routes to School Program, said if parents walk to places that are a mile or two from their house, it will encourage their kids to be more active.

“I think municipal planners are more aware of getting people the ability to bike and walk safely,” Stanley said. “I don’t think we’re going to see changes immediately, I think we’re going to see change in the [next] five years or more.”