Houston is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and it is time for the Houston government to respond with solutions, according to Lan Bentsen, founder and president of Shape Up Houston.
Shape Up Houston collaborated with the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research to host the Houston Mayoral Candidate Forum on Urban Health and Wellness on Sept. 17. The mayoral candidates present were Chris Bell, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, Bill King, Marty McVey and Sylvester Turner.
Jonathan Lack, the founder and president of health website Wellnicity, moderated the forum. In his introduction to the forum, Lack shed light on the power that the candidates have to change public health in Houston for the better.
“As a businessman, a father and a concerned Houstonian, I feel that it is critical that our next mayor makes Houston a healthy place for those of us living here,” Lack said.
The candidates all agreed that, if elected, they would collaborate with the Texas Medical Center and other groups, such as health-based nonprofit organizations, during their first 100 days in office to determine how leadership could impact public policy to encourage health.
However, not all the candidates were ready to implement a vending machine policy that would replace unhealthy products and terminate contracts with noncompliant vendors.
McVey said he is in favor of managing vending machine content, but wants it to be a collaborative decision.
“Obviously, [my answer] is going to be yes,” McVey said. “However, when we make the selections, I hope there is a lot of input on what the ‘healthy’ products are.”
King also did not endorse the policy.
“It would be somewhat of a challenge to decide what is healthy and what is unhealthy,” King said. “Choices should be available.”
None of the candidates supported passing an ordinance requiring beverage advertisers to state that drinking sugary beverages contributes to diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.
However, Turner and Bell were open to further conversation and Costello saw this as a national issue. Garcia said he thinks this could potentially be too big of a step for Houston at the moment.
“I like the idea [of a sugary beverage warning label],” Garcia said. “I don’t think Houston is there yet, though.”
On the subject of workplace wellness, McVey referenced his vision for a comprehensive plan for the city of Houston. “We need to have good streets, a great police force, great trails,” McVey said. “This includes healthy people because a healthy workforce is productive and happy. It is a really holistic plan to be a welcoming and opening city, to offer opportunities to other parts of the world as to why they should relocate here.”
Turner said he sees individual responsibility for personal behavior as essential to maintaining health, but this requires more quality stores and community gardens in neighborhoods to serve as sources for healthy diets.
“Give people meaningful choices,” Turner said. “Don’t tell people to eat healthy when they are living in food deserts. To tell people to make choices without access, making minimum wage and working very hard, it is not fair.” Bell has envisioned building 200 miles of sidewalk during his first term, an increase from the current annual construction of 76 miles. By making Houston more walkable by providing more sidewalks, fitness becomes easier to integrate into Houstonians’ daily routines.
“Walkability is a huge issue,” Bell said. “When you talk about fitness, there is no simpler option than that.”
Caroline Krawczyk, a Duncan College sophomore who attended the forum, said she saw the candidates’ manner of handling the issues of urban health and wellness as more indirect than she expected.
“I learned that at the city level, the approach to health and wellness is about creating options more than anything,” Krawczyk said. “For example, the candidates advocate for building sidewalks and parks so people can get healthy if they chose, but they do not propose concrete wellness goals for Houston for the future.”