In St. Cloud, many of the schoolchildren now walk to raise money rather than peddle cookie dough and pizza. In Blue Earth County, older residents are finding more fresh produce at senior dining sites. And visitors to Elm Creek Park in Maple Grove can now pack their picnic baskets with healthy snacks at the park concession stands.
Across the state, health officials say, these experiments help explain why Minnesota was one of only four states in the country to see a drop in adult obesity rates last year. In a report released Thursday, researchers singled out Minnesota and its wellness projects as harbingers of what might, finally, be progress in the nation’s long struggle against an epidemic of obesity.
Minnesota joined Montana, New York and Ohio in reducing the share of overweight adults — the most in a decade. Obesity rates held steady in most states and rose in two, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health.
For state health officials, the news validated eight years of funding public health initiatives and suggests that Minnesota is finally making progress against a condition that has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and other devastating chronic ailments.
“It’s very encouraging to see,” said Julie Myhre, director of the state Health Department’s Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives.
The decline, Myhre said, fits into a larger multiyear plateau tracing back to 2008. Minnesota’s adult obesity rate more than doubled between 1990 and 2002, then seemed to level off at about 26 percent in the mid-2000s.
The share of Minnesota adults considered obese was 26.1 percent last year, compared with a national average of nearly 38 percent.
Health officials say it’s no coincidence that the state’s plateau coincided with the launch of Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) in 2008. The program provides grants for healthy living projects — from farmers markets to bike paths to fresher foods in schools — and has spent more than $130 million since 2009.
Advocates say the project sets Minnesota apart from neighboring states, where obesity rates are noticeably higher. Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, for instance, each posted rates of 30 percent or more last year.
But Minnesota also possesses an unusual culture of mindfulness when it comes to health, said Simone French, an obesity researcher and professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. While it’s impossible to pinpoint a single reason behind the trend, it’s safe to say that community efforts, combined with policy changes and awareness campaigns have all contributed, French said.
“What we’re seeing is the fruition of several years of work in this area statewide,” she said.
Especially promising are numbers showing progress against childhood obesity. The Robert Wood Johnson report singled out efforts in central Minnesota, where obesity rates among 12-year-olds have dropped from 17 to 13 percent in the St. Cloud area since 2008.
Research shows it’s easier to prevent obesity in children than to combat it in overweight adults — and the earlier the better. Overweight 5-year-olds are more than four times as likely to become obese than their healthy-weight peers, according to the report.
In central Minnesota, CentraCare Health, a nonprofit health care system, has worked with county health officials and used SHIP funds to install neighborhood bike lanes, sidewalks to encourage walking, and implement an easy nutritional scoring system for foods sold in local grocery stores.
And while it took several years to see significant decreases in body weights, the work has started to pay off, said John Inkster, operations manager for wellness at CentraCare Health.
Schools, for instance, are moving away from selling unhealthy foods to using exercise-based events to raise money. Twenty-six schools in six counties have switched to this fundraising model, Inkster said.
The idea has roots in St. Cloud, where two staffers at South Junior High School first pitched having a one-day “walkathon” instead of selling cookie dough in 2006.
The annual event gives students prizes and incentives — raising more money means more time released from class on given days — and brings in about $30,000 a year, said Becky Marohl, a special education teacher who helped get the event going.
“It’s not a hard sell,” Marohl said. “Schools love it, parents love it and kids love being out there and walking with friends.”