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Report: Milwaukee Obesity Rates Continue to Rise

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Keeping up with your individual health can be a challenge, but trying to keep a city healthy is another endeavor completely.

Obesity rates are on the rise nationwide, leading to public health issues such as widespread diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea, mental health problems and overall issues with quality of life.

A recent Public Policy Forum report, An Apple A Day: How obesity impacts Milwaukee and an analysis of prevention strategies from other cities, shows the issues are especially acute in Milwaukee. 

The study found in 2014, 37.2% of Milwaukee residents were considered obese, which is an increase from 29.6% in 2011.

"More shocking is that the obesity rate in the city of Milwaukee has risen about eight percentage points in the last four years, which is much more than the national average, state average, and the increase at the county level as well," notes Chris Spahr, lead author of the study.

The study also examines how city elements contribute to this problem and looks for solutions to turn the tide. 

"Many people attribute obesity to individual decisions, and people's individual decisions to eat unhealthy food or to be physically inactive. Whereas we have found that obesity to be linked to a lot of social issues," says Spahr.

The study notes that areas of the city with low socioeconomic status have the highest rates of obesity. Contributing factors to this can include food desserts, a higher number of fast food outlets, over-reliance on cars and fewer opportunities for physical activity and recreation due to neighborhood safety levels.

Milwaukee is also known for being one of the most segregated cities in the nation, and this disparity is also reflected in obesity rates. The latest data from the report shows 45.1% of African Americans in Milwaukee are obese, compared to 31.4% of white residents.

In order to tackle the issue of obesity, the Public Policy Forum report concluded that the Milwaukee Health Department would not be able to lead the effort while it tackles other high priority issues such as lead poisoning, violence and infant mortality.

"Despite the rising obesity rate, the budget of the Health Department of Milwaukee is pretty flat," says Spahr. "So while they can play a really important role, we don't feel that they necessarily have the capacity to be the lead organization."

The report suggests instead to use a collaborative approach city-wide to tackle obesity. Several community-based obesity prevention initiatives are already underway, such as the Milwaukee Childhood Obesity Prevention Project, which the report recommended to lead the collaborative effort.

"A new effort around collaboration and obesity could align itself directly with violence prevention, with education. Because those are factors that contribute to the obesity rate in Milwaukee," explains Spahr.

With the Health Department's hands and funding tied, Spahr hopes this report and its recommendations will be the spark needed to get smaller organizations working together to significantly decrease the obesity rates in Milwaukee.

"I think it's really important to be talking about this issue, that's really something that we want to come out of this report," says Spahr. "We just want there to be a conversation."

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.