Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez bikes to City Hall on a regular basis in part to raise awareness for obesity prevention. (Photo by: Nick Gerda)

Thursday, June 2, 2011 | Her job may be in the political trenches, but Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez wants her commute to be something that is nonpartisan.

Martinez rides her bike to City Hall a few days a week, not just to keep her own weight down but to help persuade Orange County to shed its status as the state’s second fattest county in terms of health costs.

“Obesity reaches all ethnicities and [crosses] all party lines, Republican, Democrat and Independent,” she said. “It doesn’t discriminate based on party lines.”

Martinez is director of the Obesity Prevention Plan, a countywide effort financed by the Health Funders Partnership, a coalition of 16 organizations including Kaiser Permanente, the Sisters of St. Joseph Foundation, the county’s Children and Families Commission and CalOptima, the county program that delivers Medi-Cal services to low income residents.

The goal, much like the “Let’s Move!” program promoted by first lady Michelle Obama, is to encourage children to exercise and eat more healthful foods.

Martinez said her program has already made inroads on both sides of the aisle. It has gained support not only from the Democratic majority on Santa Ana City Council, but also from traditionally Republican city councils like Fullerton’s and Placentia’s in the north and Mission Viejo’s and Aliso Viejo’s in the south.

But she still has an uphill battle gather a critical mass of local government leaders who see the fight against obesity as a policy priority.

For example, last year the county signed a new $39-million contract for food vendors at John Wayne Airport, but unlike some other airports, there was no requirement that any of the food be healthful.

“Health is an individual choice,” county CEO Tom Mauk said at the time. “As long as the airport provides a wide spectrum of choices and variety, people can choose.”

For some it may amount to individual choice, acknowledges Martinez and others. But there have been many policy decisions made in Orange County and elsewhere that make healthful choices more difficult.

Obesity in the OC

Obesity in the U.S. tripled within a generation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helps finance the state’s version of the Obesity Prevention Program.

In the U.S. today about 17 percent or 12.5 million children and teens are obese.

Children in low-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable because supermarkets tend to be far away, leaving few sources of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods. And poor neighborhoods often are “park poor,” meaning kids have nowhere safe to play outdoors after school.

Orange County is the third most populous county in California, but second only to Los Angeles County when it comes to the financial costs of fat.

The county’s obesity prevention plan estimates inadequate exercise and poor eating habits cost the county about $3.3 billion a year. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers and strokes, among other illnesses. And it raises the cost of health care and lost productivity among workers.

A 2009 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy estimated the statewide costs associated with obesity at $41 billion a year.

“To put this in perspective, the economic cost to California of adults who are obese, overweight and physically inactive is equivalent to more than a third of the state’s total budget,” said state Controller John Chiang when the 2009 report came out.

“Think of the programs we could protect, the children we could educate and the families we could help if we could recapture those dollars by investing in prevention.”

Some of that thinking was going on last week as county leaders gathered for an all-day session at Cal State Fullerton to discuss ways better food and more physical activity can be incorporated into the daily lives of children.

In attendance were school and city officials as well as representatives from the Orange County Transportation Authority and Southern California Association of Governments.

Encouraging walking to school, encouraging cities to keep sidewalks safe and clean and renewed emphasis on physical education classes and after-school activities were among the topics discussed.

But as Martinez and several speakers noted, adults too need help in the form of safe, attractive streets where they aren’t afraid to walk, convenient neighborhood parks, far more extensive bike lanes and more accessible transportation so that the family car isn’t the only option for getting to work.

At the conference, city planners were urged to update their master plans to make sure new or modernized neighborhoods encourage residents to walk to shops, include bike paths and attractive sidewalks, and have neighborhood parks.

Firsthand Experience

Personal experience has taught Martinez that the fight against obesity can be a long one.

“Growing up, I was never skinny,” she said. “I was always an overweight kid.”

And her mother suffered from Type 2 diabetes, eventually requiring kidney dialysis. She died of kidney failure at age 47.

In 2008 when Martinez unsuccessfully ran for mayor, she said her weight jumped from 150 to 199 pounds thanks to the unpredictable meal times that go with campaigning and stress.

In fact, she jokes, most elected officials gain weight their first year in office, visible proof of the substantial food and drink that go with the special events they regularly attend.

After the campaign, she said she took up bike riding. “That’s how I lost my weight, on a bike. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 10. Now to be on a bike in my 30s …”

She said once she started riding “the pounds just shed” and she enjoyed it. Now, she can make trips of 50 miles. Her trip Monday was 30 miles, including a stretch along the Santa Ana River trail, making her way from Santa Ana to Huntington Beach.

But all communities need ways for residents to easily use the outdoors, she said.

“Policy makers are really the ones who are creating the environment for their constituents,” she said. “We have to do better.”

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