It's no secret that Americans are getting fatter, with alarming spikes in obesity among our children.

All that ends this week, when Minnesotans will transform magically into the fittest, healthiest populace in the United States.

All right, I'm lying, but hold that thought. Because beginning Thursday, an array of illuminating ideas will burst forth from people who know best how to get our hands around this growing epidemic:


The Minnesota Community Foundation, in collaboration with the Citizens League and a host of community partners, is launching the first, and likely most stubborn, challenge of the Minnesota Idea Open: How do we get people to eat better? And who better to ask than those who are eating?

"We are asking Minnesotans to help solve a problem that experts are stuck on," said Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League. "When it comes to healthy eating and obesity, we are not making much progress. We need on-the-ground ideas. We think people have very practical information that's likely to move the needle."

Many themes were considered for the inaugural challenge, including transportation and water quality, said Jen Ford Reedy, Minnesota Community Foundation vice president for strategy. But obesity was deemed the most pressing: Nearly 38 percent of Minnesotans are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-fourth of the state's adults are obese. The CDC predicts that, by 2020, only 23 percent of Minnesotans will be at a healthy weight.

Idea Open partners, including the Knight Foundation and Minnesota Public Radio, envision families, neighbors and co-workers sitting around tables, problem-solving together. They hope kids offer ideas, too.

"I'd love for a junior high school student to say, 'Here's what would make a difference in my school-lunch program,'" Kershaw said.

The winning idea will be implemented with a $15,000 grant. The winner takes home $500. That's a lot of broccoli. Here's how it works:

Ideas will be accepted between Thursday and April 9, but you can log on now ( for inspiration and information about how to submit. New ideas are great. Fresh ways to implement old ideas are fine, too. Hints: Don't write a thesis. Think brief, practical and feasible. And clone-able.

In April, judges will narrow down what they hope are hundreds of inspired ideas to 10 or 20, then down to the top two or three. From May 3 to May 14, you'll be able to vote for the winning idea, which will be announced the week of May 17. If all goes well, the idea will be reality soon after.

Turning to the masses to solve problems of the masses has become a popular strategy:,, and Pepsi Co's Refresh Project ( are among corporations seeking suggestions from consumers about how to improve their products and the world.

First Lady Michelle Obama recently spoke to the national PTA conference about childhood obesity, which has tripled in 30 years. She announced a new website,, filled with recipes and exercise plans for families, as well as a contest challenging software and game designers to create games incorporating nutrition information and physical fitness elements.

Still, Minnesota's response to a troubling trend is bold and cutting edge, said Charlie Brown, of Virginia-based Ashoka Changemakers. His firm, which created the Minnesota Idea Open website, specializes in online competitions for social change worldwide.

"It's relatively easy for Starbucks to ask their consumers for suggestions on a contained issue," he said. "But this isn't about what type of coffee I want. It's asking millions of citizens who meet every type of demographic, from recent immigrants to those who have been here for many generations, for a shared vision of how to move forward together. It's a daring step to take."

He sees the online approach as "the new town hall. For once, it's going to defy class boundaries, as well. It's going to come down to what is really the most powerful idea. Our hope is that this is just the first in an ongoing series of ways for citizens to engage in practices to change their state."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •