In the spring when United Way of the Mid-South announced one of our top health priorities was “active living and healthy eating,” some of our staff (me included) felt a twinge of guilt and remorse, knowing that personal and professional changes needed to be made.
At United Way, especially as a chapter here in the Southern United States, food and eating together are large parts of our culture. Mid-Southerners can ignore divides between race, gender, religion, age, politics, economic status and other forces in conversations about the best places in town to eat world-champion bar-b-que. Whether a United Way meeting is focused on raising funds to improve education, financial stability or health or brings volunteers and experts together to review programs and outcomes for our community, there’s a good chance that snacks or meals are involved.
The challenge is, while the food at many of these meetings is delicious, it’s often not very healthy.
Sometimes, food choices are out of staff’s control – a great organization and/or volunteer brings a box of donuts or another tempting delicacy to the meeting. Being obliging people (obliging being a much kinder word than “weak”) we gladly dig in and have one, or two, or more. Other times, staff itself has made food choices based upon its contribution to creating a fun or celebratory atmosphere rather than if it’s nutritious or healthy.
I can personally attest to not-so-wonderful feelings in my stomach due to unhealthy eating at some otherwise excellent United Way meetings.
Active living is a challenging priority, too. I purchased a new bicycle less than three years ago when I had wonderful intentions to be pedaling whenever possible. When I go to our storage building these days, the sight of its still-sparkling paint fills me with remorse (especially on clear weather days), makes me consider how much more healthy I could be and challenges me to live up to my previous goals. It’s all too easy to blame a busy schedule or the need for more rest but the reality is, I need to make active living a personal priority just like United Way is recognizing it as a community priority.
This week, United Way makes a big step to changing its work culture as our staff is participating in our annual in-house campaign. This in-house effort is our first fundraising drive of the year, when staff make pledges from our personal resources to support United Way’s work. Normally, the atmosphere is as party-like as we can make it with obligatory candies, desserts, and yes, even a few donuts. But this year we’ve made our active living / healthy eating priorities the overall theme of our event. It’s the start of many work culture changes. We hope our team is inspired to make changes in choices for healthier living as well.
These choices reflect growing changes in the Mid-South’s attitude to wellness. Our community has taken big steps to live healthier for the last several years. The expansion in the number of bicycle accessible streets, the popularity of the Memphis Greenline and its connected paths, and the growth in the number (and locations) of places where one can purchase fresh produce in our region is encouraging.
We still have a long way to go though – Shelby County’s 34% obesity rate is higher than other major metro areas, and we’re still working to reverse the high numbers of local people battling heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. These health problems come with a steep financial cost too – more workers need time off for sick days and tight household budgets have to allow for money spent on medications.
Recently, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and the Governor’s Foundation for Health and Wellness launched a new initiative called “Healthier Tennessee” (visit the website and sign up here). The focus of the program is to help citizens and workplaces make smarter decisions about eating and exercise. United Way has signed on to this important effort, and as we work to make changes to our personal and work cultures we’re encouraging people and workplaces across our region to do the same.
Oh, and it probably bears mentioning that some of us will still be obliging if you offer us a donut on occasion – we’re only human after all. (Hopefully we’ll balance that choice with determination to get on the bicycle.) But don’t be surprised if your next trip to our office has offerings such as apples and oranges rather than deep-fried delicacies, and if extra-long meetings come with an invitation to get up and stretch now and then.