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It’s Fifty Nifty as we Welcome our First Leader from Wyoming! hit a major milestone a few weeks ago when Megan Zaharas signed up to be a Leader during the Weight of the Nation conference. Zaharas, alongside Karla Case from the University of Wyoming, are the first official Leaders from the Equality State — and that means there are now Leaders in every state (plus Guam and even Canada)!

To mark the occasion, we chatted with Zaharas to find out more about her organization Well-Being of Wyoming, which is working to reduce obesity across the state. It’s a shift for the group, which has spent the past decade focused on tobacco reduction. But as Zaharas explains, there are parallels in the two health-focused efforts.

Well-Being of Wyoming was founded to reduce tobacco use in the state. Now you are transitioning to overall wellness, including health promotion. Why make the transition, and what wellness areas are you specifically focusing on?

In July 2011, Well-Being of Wyoming was awarded one of five cancer grants in the state. This grant expanded our mission and allowed us to venture into other health promotion areas. We also joined Casper’s Initiative to Nurture Community Health (CINCH), which is part of the ACHIEVE communities [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] grant. This local group is focusing on nutrition, walkability, and tobacco. Together Well-Being of Wyoming and CINCH have worked to increase pathways in [Casper], introduce vending machine policies and support a smoke free ordinance for the city.     

What lessons did you learn from your tobacco work that you are using now? How is it different?

Over the past 10 years, tobacco prevention has entailed education along with policy, environmental and systems change. This includes educating local politicians on the importance of smoke free environments, supporting a smoke free city ordinance, providing businesses with smoke free policies, educating the public on the harms of tobacco and benefits of quitting, increasing enrollment into the Wyoming Quit Tobacco Program, recruiting pharmacies to sign on with the Wyoming Quit Tobacco program to provide medication and supporting smoke free environments with signage and media recognition. With the movement toward overall wellness, the same basic principles apply. Evidence-based strategies strongly support the use of policy, environmental and systems change. Therefore our local coalition has applied these same principles by encouraging policy change within businesses and the community at large. Environment plays a major role in overall wellness. Therefore, it is important to look at the health of the nation as a more complex issue.

How big of a problem is childhood obesity in Wyoming?

Compared to other states on a scale from 1 to 50 (50 being the least obese), Wyoming has been ranked the 35th most obese state, meaning we weigh less than 34 other states and more than 14. Therefore, we are definitely healthier than many states but have room for improvement as each year we continue to gradually climb up the ranks towards most obese. For instance, in 2003 we were ranked 47 in overall prevalence of childhood obesity with 50 being the best. However, four years later in 2007 childhood obesity increased and we dropped to 45. Same thing occurred with overall obesity, as we originally were ranked 39 but have now dropped to 35. We may not be the most obese but our current trends are on the rise.   

How specifically are you working to reduce obesity? Are you focusing on nutrition? Physical activity? Walkability? All of the above?

Through our local coalition CINCH, we are working to reduce obesity, improve nutrition and physical activity and create more walking and biking paths. In January, we hosted the Summit for a Healthier Natrona County. We established several focus groups to work on various topics involving overall wellness. These focus groups will continue efforts this upcoming year. In addition, we are currently developing [a request for proposals] for healthier vending machines. Several city organizations have agreed to adopt this RFP and begin providing healthier food options. Furthermore, the city has completed many of the city pathways and CINCH will host our second annual community walks starting in June. Additionally, we have sent letters of support to the city council as they look to vote on a city wide smoke free ordinance. CINCH also has plans to work with local restaurants on menu labeling and educating local politicians on the importance of making this an ordinance. Furthermore, we currently work with the local city bus on providing transportation to the farmers’ market throughout the summer and early fall season. We are also looking into implementing an EBT system at the farmers’ market so that everyone has an opportunity to purchase fresh produce no matter their source of payment.

What resources do you need to help with these efforts?

It would be helpful to have examples of policies and comprehensive health plans at both the local, district, and state levels. Collaborating with other communities who have accomplished great strides toward overall community wellness is also paramount.

Click here to connect with Megan Zaharas.

Don't miss the rest of the Inside Track, including news about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's upcoming competitive foods guidelines and a look at the top 10 food trends.