Doing Better at Doing Good

Addressing obesity epidemic requires smart policy and innovative solutions

June 24, 2012 

Losing weight is really hard. And in North Carolina, we are struggling with a state-wide obesity epidemic. Consider this: two-thirds of North Carolinians are overweight or obese. In the last two decades, obesity rates have doubled across the state – an increase of 1.9 million adults, or the equivalent of filling the Carolina Panthers stadium 26 times.

One in three children between the ages of 10-17 in our state struggles with weight. They have a 70 percent chance of remaining overweight or obese as adults. Less than half of adults and only a quarter of high school students in North Carolina get the recommended amount of daily exercise. And it’s more likely that you will drink a sugar sweetened beverage today than consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

The impact on our lives is alarming. Lack of physical activity and poor eating habits are significant contributors to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer. All told, these behaviors are the second leading preventable cause of death in our state. Because of over-eating and lack of exercise, today’s children might be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents’ generation.

What makes this challenge so tough is that it’s complex. Addressing it effectively requires a combination of smart policy and innovative solutions from the non-profit and private sector. And one such effort is already under way.

To catalyze community problem solving, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has partnered up with N.C. State’s Institute of Emerging Issues and Forward Communities (that Christopher leads) to launch the Health Innovation Challenge.

Setting health goals

Aligned with Blue Cross’ interest in preventive health care solutions as well as their commitment to practical solutions for improving health in the state, the Challenge provides entrepreneurs incentives to develop, implement, and scale community-based solutions designed to promote healthy lifestyles with a specific focus on reducing obesity.

It works as a multi-round business plan competition for entrepreneurs focused on taking on obesity. The top three winners will receive up to $20,000 each to help pursue their ventures.

Launched in March, the first round attracted 64 innovative ideas from across the state. Judges selected 24 for a pitch competition at BCBS; after an intense day of presentations, 11 advanced to a 10-week accelerator run by Bull City Forward. During this time, these entrepreneurs will be matched up with office space and coaches, get feedback on their ideas, and plug into a peer leadership group of other social entrepreneurs. In mid-September, they will present their polished ideas for the final awards ceremony.

Among the top 11 ventures, innovation abounds. Waterra installs filtered water dispensers in schools that chill municipal water, mix it with low calorie vitamins, and allow students to use their own bottles (reducing land fill). Operating in 20 schools across the state so far, Waterra is now looking to extend its reach.

Ongoing guidance

Meanwhile, The Walking Classroom is an educational fitness program that allows fifth- graders to listen to standards-based curriculum podcasts while taking a brisk 20-minute walk. And MATCH is a multi-disciplinary program for eighth- graders emerging out of Greenville, N.C. that helps students set personal health goals, learn nutritional decision-making, and track their progress through an awards-based challenge.

Speaking of challenges, ChallengeWave helps communities and companies host healthy weight challenges – pitting city against city or company against company in friendly weight-loss competitions. And Closed Loop Health is using social media to provide overweight people a peer support group, ongoing guidance, and personal accountability.

Also in the tech space, INRFOOD is a smart-phone app that allows you to scan your food to determine its health attributes (it’s also great for folks with allergies or who are pregnant and need to avoid certain foods). And Sqord is an incentive-based game sparking kids’ exercise using accelerometers that measure a child’s daily exercise.

Commitment is key

LoMo Market brings the farmer’s market to your neighborhood through its sleek mobile grocery store. LoMo’s currently in the Triangle with ambitions to scale across the state. And Healthy Black Hair has developed a proprietary head wrap designed to keep African-American women’s head cool and their hair sweat-free as they work out.

Finally, Cook for Good teaches people how to cook organically for less than $5 a day. And the Nash County Health Department is finding innovative ways to get healthy foods into under-served communities – a model it hopes to share statewide.

Will these promising ideas make a difference? We hope so. Still, smart innovation can only take us so far. It needs to be matched by a personal commitment to eating well, exercising right, and helping our communities get and stay healthy.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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