OKLAHOMA CITY — On April 22, 1889, at the firing of a pistol, 10,000 men, women and children rushed into the Indian Territories to claim pieces of the land that overnight became Oklahoma City. Some rode on wagons and carriages, some came on horseback, some even hoofed it in cracked leather shoes.
And that, until recently, was the last time most of the folks here got out of their cars.
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For most of its existence, Oklahoma City has been an oil-fueled place, ringed and riveted by superhighways and boulevards unsullied by shoulder or sidewalk. It was a city built to make cars happy. Parking was effortless, walking unnecessary and suburbs sprang like fungi across the unfruited plain.
In tectonic terms, Oklahoma City is a culinary plume where the Southwest plate of deep fried dough meets Southern barbecue and Texas-sized burrito formations. It has the most fast-food consumption of any city in the country. Sonic, the drive-in chain, home of Day-Glo milkshakes and SuperSonic double-bacon cheeseburgers, has its headquarters here.
With all that driving and guzzling, the city became ground zero for the national obesity epidemic. In 2007, Men’s Fitness called it the 8th fattest city in America.
Mick Cornett had been mayor of the city for three years when he noticed that magazine listicle. The driven, metrics-obsessed former sportscaster had just shed 40 pounds in 40 weeks by reducing his daily caloric input from 3,000 to 2,000.
“I didn’t know anything about obesity other than being obese,” Cornett said. But he sensed that while oil had powered the city’s growth, grease might stop it dead.
On New Year’s Eve, Cornett summoned the news media to the city zoo for an announcement: He was putting his whole city on a diet. The city’s residents needed to look more like ferrets and less like elephants, he said (elephants, notwithstanding the bad publicity, are just big-boned).
A friend of the mayor created a website to track the city’s progress and most of the big corporations in town signed up their employees. Some 47,000 residents enlisted in a campaign to lose a cumulative 1 million pounds. Cornett acknowledged it was a risky move. “I just put my wife on a diet,” he said.
In taking this on, Cornett was wading into a challenge that has preoccupied, and vexed, a lot of political leaders. America is heavy. A third of us are overweight, one in six obese. The numbers have more than doubled in two decades—in Oklahoma they tripled. Being too fat costs us billions in health care dollars—a cost borne by individuals, employers and local health care systems. But people’s behavior is notoriously difficult to change and almost all obesity-fighting campaigns, whether personal or public, fail. Of populationwide approaches, “the few that do work have small effects, and often when introduced in a new setting they tend not to work a second time,” says Tom Baranowski, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor University.
Policymakers scramble for the right behavioral “nudges” to get people to lose weight. And it’s here that political philosophy comes into play. If you’re a mayor, do you impose a sugar tax, or just “encourage good choices”? Do you portray the obesity epidemic as a nightmare of rampant capitalism, or a failure of personal will and self-discipline? Do you ban hamburgers and pizza, or make their crusts whole wheat?
For Cornett, the path was straightforward. He didn’t have the resources to launch an attack on corporations, even if that had been his political persuasion, and it most definitely was not. He was the conservative mayor of a conservative city with a staff of three, himself included.
Cornett, who had no background in health, became the city’s low-calorie Jeremiah, a stern voice for thinning on the plains. The campaign was called simply, “This city is going on a diet.”
As to how to do it, New York, Mexico City and Berkeley could impose sugar taxes or ban Big Gulps to lower sugar consumption, and they might succeed. “I have an MBA. I understand supply and demand,” Cornett said. “But that’s not my style.”
“I made a distinct decision early on that we weren’t going to take on the fast-food industry or the private sector,” he tells me in an interview at his office. Cornett is slim, friendly but serious, speaks in well-punctuated complete sentences and oozes drive, his blue eyes darting under sharply peaked eyebrows.
“I took a realistic approach that people are going to eat fast food, but there are some choices are better than others and people need to realize that. Just because you’ve made the decision to eat at that restaurant doesn’t mean there aren’t further decisions to be made.”
The mayor’s message of self-abnegation played well in the city of 1.3 million. Neither of his two reelections since was truly contested.
In Cornett’s anti-obesity campaign, all were welcome, even the fast-food chains. Many restaurants in town put a healthy “mayor’s special” on their menus. Cornett went on a morning news show with the head of the local Taco Bell franchise and appeared at his restaurants to hand out “healthy” burritos.
People began signing up on the mayor’s website and reporting their weight loss. In 2012, four years after the campaign started, the city passed the 1 million pound mark, according to the website, which registered the numbers reported to it, and whose owner sometimes ran ads for bariatric surgery or vitamin supplements sold by his company.
OKC dropped off Men’s Fitness’s list of fattest cities. As for other measures of success, they’re mixed. Gallup and Healthways data in 2012 showed the city’s obesity rate, in aggregate, has continued to rise since 2008.
“I feel comfortable that those 47,000 people did lose weight,” Cornett says. “I can’t tell you there weren’t 47,000 people who gained a million pounds.”
Cornett, energized by the response, began to turn his attention to bigger structural changes he could implement that would could make a sustainable, even permanent difference for his constituents. Maybe not everyone would stop ordering extra sour cream, but he could help build a city where they’d walk, or run, or just think about healthier alternatives.
“Some people want to write reports and collect data, but I’m looking at bigger things,” Cornett says. “I’m looking at creating a city where highly motivated 20-somethings will want to gravitate toward because we understand how to prioritize things like biking, hiking and health. I want a perception that we’re a community that’s fighting for health. I’m less interested in this year’s measurements compared to last year’s.”
When you approach tortilla-flat Oklahoma City from any direction, the view is dominated by the 50-story Devon Tower, named for one of five Fortune 1000 energy companies that, with the banks, dominate the skyline. Energy still leads the city’s economy as it has for a century, although tech-oriented companies like Dell and Boeing have built major plants in recent years.
Cornett could see that the “built environment” was key to continuing the momentum of his campaign to lift up Oklahoma City. People tend to weigh less when they live in places—case in point, New York City—that encourage them to move as part of their daily routine; when they can use safe and efficient mass transit, parks and other amenities. And the right surroundings, experts say, are far more effective influence on their behavior than finger-wagging from their doctors.
“The one thing we know that gets people to walk is to create places that are enticing so they want to walk there,” says Dick Jackson, a UCLA medical professor and former director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health. “Telling people to exercise, to go to the gym, doesn’t seem to work. You have to build it into daily life.”