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A Real White Elephant



Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett wasn’t afraid to throw a little weight around back in 2007 when he announced his city’s new initiative to combat obesity. Or rather, he wasn’t afraid to throw a lot of weight around.

That’s because Cornett unveiled his plan in front of the elephant house at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Talk about a photo opp.

"My goal was to take on the awareness issue. In Oklahoma City, we weren’t talking about obesity," Cornett says. "We were in denial. We knew there was a problem and we weren’t doing anything about it."

The Inside Track caught up with Cornett in Cleveland last week, just before he spoke at a conference on childhood obesity sponsored by Slate and the Cleveland Clinic. One of the first big city mayors to launch an obesity initiative, Cornett recalled that initially there wasn’t any money that he could spend on the effort.

But there certainly was a need. At the time, Oklahoma City was undergoing a dramatic revitalization, named to several "best of" lists and preparing to welcome a NBA team, a major coup. But then came along another list, this one naming Oklahoma City as one of the most obese cities in America.

Cornett, who has struggled with weight issues himself, admits making the list wasn’t a surprise, but says he "was embarrassed by it." In response, Cornett launched, an online venue that he says serves "as a funneling point for all points obesity."

Along with taking advantage of the resources on the website, Oklahoma City denizens pledge to shed weight themselves. Cornett’s goal is for his city to lose 1 million pounds, and it’s already three quarters of the way there.

The city’s effort attracted the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who launched the "Let’s Move Cities and Towns" initiative in Oklahoma City last year. Eventually, the message started getting through. "I can’t tell you that we all look like supermodels, but… there is awareness now," Cornett says.

Cornett also started working with local restaurants to offer low calorie menu options, many of which were named in his honor (Cornett brags these are often the most popular dishes). He also worked with fast-food restaurants to offer healthier items, including Subway and Taco Bell; we should note there are 45 Taco Bell locations in the city, which draw 35,000 people each day.

"I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to be able to stop 35,000 people from going to Taco Bell,’" Cornett says, adding that working with the chain was "a realistic approach based on the fact I have nothing to spend."

But money is going to other efforts that could wind up playing a role in reducing obesity rates, as the city is undertaking a massive, 10-year effort to completely redo its infrastructure. New school gyms are being built, 450 miles of sidewalks are being installed, there is a master plan for bike and pedestrian trails, a 70 acre park will be installed downtown and all streets are being redesigned to be more pedestrian friendly.

"We had built a city where life revolved around the car," Cornett says. "But now we’re building a city where life revolves around people."