When I was weighing my decision to run for mayor of Tupelo, or to remain a private citizen and continue to try to contribute to our community in that role, I asked this question: “What can elected leaders do to make a significant difference for good?”
I arrived at this answer: “They can create an environment where citizens have the potential to lead healthy, enjoyable, balanced, productive lives; and where they, and their businesses, can prosper.”
Rather than briefly mention a litany of challenges and opportunities I see before us in 2010, I would like to address one major challenge and opportunity in this column today: fundamentally changing Tupelo’s environment to improve the health of our children and our adults.
Obesity is America’s fast-growing epidemic in adults and in children. For the first time in our nation’s history, our current 4th graders have a shorter life–expectancy than their parents. Mississippi is America’s fattest state. It crosses all lines–gender, race, and age. Complications from Type II diabetes is the leading diagnosis of patients treated in our North Mississippi Medical Center.
Last month I, along with Randy Shaver, Superintendent of our Tupelo Public Schools, attended a three-day Leadership Academy of Southern Leaders, where we shared strategies for reducing childhood obesity.
I concluded that, (1) Tupelo is ahead of many Southern cities in addressing these problems; (2) but there are cities doing more; (3) and we can-and-must-do more, for ourselves and for our children.
Among our strengths to build upon are:
- Health Works!–a national model encouraging healthy behavioral choices for children, led by an extraordinarily enthusiastic staff, which served 22,000 visitors in its first year – 2009!
- A Vision, “Tupelo-Mississippi’s Healthiest City,” already embraced by our municipal leaders (mayor and City Council), our schools, our Parks & Recreation Department, Planning & Development Department, our North Mississippi Medical Center, our local media, and our private citizens; (most cities have not yet achieved our level of cooperation and collaboration);
- Vehicles to carry that Vision: Our two Mayor’s Task Forces on “Healthiest City” and “Safe Strong Attractive Neighborhoods and Attractive Public Spaces,” which already include representatives of the aforementioned groups.
- Citizen awareness and involvement and celebrations of successes. Our recent Mayor’s Marathon which registered over 4,000 of us – of all ages – who walked or ran at least 26.2 miles during the month of November, an extraordinary level of participation.
- A strong existing Parks & Recreation system, with some walking trails;
- A Comprehensive City Plan
- A strong Wellness Center and walking track;
- School physical education teachers;
- School nurses;
- School attention to healthy menus;
- Examples of excellence in schools: boys and girls state champion cross-country teams and swimming teams and tennis teams, among other successful programs;
- Our new 3’ foot wide safety distance for cyclists and pedestrians law;
- The Natchez Trace Parkway – a national park running through our city with its own trails to connect to.
Among our weaknesses and opportunities:
- A very limited system of at least 5 foot wide sidewalks, safely connecting neighborhoods, and/or safely connecting neighborhoods to schools;
- A lack of a city-wide system of jogging, walking/biking trails; (we’re working on that right now);
- A pedestrian unfriendly Downtown Tupelo, with traffic moving too fast for citizen safety;
- No bike lanes;
- A lack of stores offering healthy food options within walking distance of some of our lower income neighborhoods
The good news is that these are all problems that we have within our power to solve – if we have the will. That will to solve them will be tremendously boosted by private citizens supporting these changes, and letting us elected officials hear from you. That’s democracy.
We have a great community. It can be an even better one. History tells us that one of the highest privileges one could claim during the great days of the Roman Empire was: “I am a Citizen of Rome.”
Today, six months into the political term, it is my privilege to join each of you in saying “I am a citizen of a city committed to the good health of every citizen. I am a Citizen of Tupelo.”
Mayor Jack Reed, Jr., a lifelong competitive athlete and a former retail executive, was elected in 2009. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Reed Jr.