Catherine Templeton admits she spoke out on the need to combat obesity in South Carolina before she thoroughly researched the issue – and she’s glad she did.
The response last July when the then-new director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control declared the agency should focus its resources on obesity surprised her. In the days and weeks after that declaration, she was inundated with calls and emails from hundreds of obesity-fighting troops scattered throughout the state.
“Look at what we’re doing,” they said. “Don’t waste time reinventing the wheel.”
Four months later, Templeton invited all of those advocates, along with food industry leaders and anyone else she thought had a vested interest, to a meeting in Columbia. She called it “Unified! A Voice Against Obesity.”
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First, she apologized to them for jumping the gun a little back in July. Then she noted that some of them are “reinventing the wheel” themselves, working hard to develop a framework for a program in their communities when they could borrow the plans for similar programs already making progress in other communities. In some cases, she said, groups were working on programs that had failed elsewhere and had little likelihood of working for them.
They’re sometimes too busy working on local agendas to get a handle on what’s going on elsewhere, Templeton said. What they needed was an anti-obesity clearinghouse. She suggested that DHEC be the conduit.
“There are so many advocates out there doing great work,” she said at that Nov. 13 meeting. “But there’s not one place where they all go to share knowledge. I would like for us to create that place ... a forum where we can really go forward with one voice.”
Then she declared the gathering the first quarterly meeting of the state obesity council, or whatever anyone else wanted to call it. And she made it clear she didn’t plan to hand it over to staff members after the meeting.
“I want to fit in,” she said. “I want to be part of the voice. You’re my eyes now, and I’m your support.”
Templeton’s knowledge clearly was catching up with her enthusiasm.
She obviously had learned a lot since she spoke out in July, before she had spoken with her agency’s own obesity program director. All she knew was that Lisa Waddell, the agency’s deputy director for health services, had told her obesity was the one health problem that kills the most South Carolinians, that makes the most South Carolinians sick and that, if prevented, would save South Carolina the most money.
“I had identified the problem, but I wasn’t ready with solutions,” Templeton said.
At the meeting with advocates this month, Templeton listed success stories such as a program in Charleston that encourages doctors to adopt a school, another in Greenville that sends public school chefs to culinary school and a body mass index measurement effort that’s part of the 29203 program in Columbia.
Confronting the problem “is happening all over the state in different ways,” she said.
Well, almost everywhere. The other message Templeton had for the group was that she wasn’t backing down from her July declaration that DHEC would focus its attention on the state’s pockets of extreme obesity. Statistics indicate obesity rates are highest in a few rural areas. Often those areas don’t have the large corporations, major medical facilities or universities that push health initiatives in larger cities.
Templeton said she will ask DHEC staffers to take the lessons learned from successful initiatives into Bamberg, Lee and Fairfield counties, poor counties with fewer resources.
“Charleston’s got money. Columbia’s got money. Greenville’s got money,” Templeton said. “Fairfield, Lee and Bamberg don’t have much money, and they have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity.”
Low-income counties can be turned around, she said. Most advocates point to Colleton County as one of the state’s anti-obesity success stories. Colleton’s broad-based program, however, has the financial backing of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, which hopes to use the lessons learned there to improve the health of other rural areas.
The general consensus in the audience on Nov. 13 was: Welcome to the fight.
“What can a state agency do that will influence this?” said Russ Pate, a University of South Carolina professor and researcher whose focus has been on the role of exercise in reducing obesity. “You can shine the light of day on the problem and the factors that influence the outcome.
“There are a lot of good ideas, and many of them have been shown to be effective at the local level. The challenge is to scale those up. ... DHEC can incentivize those.”
Thornton Kirby, president and CEO of the S.C. Hospital Association, said the challenge is getting organizations that “are not commonly controlled to work on a common goal. ... You’ve got to have a convener, and I think that with you as our organizer and leader, DHEC is the right organizer to convene this.”
Amy Splittgerber is director of Eat Smart Move More South Carolina, probably the program with the broadest role in the obesity effort in the state. In July, she was surprised Templeton spoke out on ways to fix the problem without talking with those who had been in the trenches for years. Now, she appreciates the renewed enthusiasm from the top of the state’s public health agency.
“Having the engagement, influence and leadership of director Templeton on this issue is critical to elevate not only the crisis, but also the solutions that are necessary to reverse the trend,” Splittgerber said. “South Carolina is uniquely positioned to be the first state to turn the tide on obesity.”