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I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life. Of the three Latzke children, I was the one that you might call, “an easy gainer.” Except for a few health scares that dramatically dropped the pounds off my frame, I’ve always been in the upper percentile for growth for all 41 years I’ve been on this Earth.

At one point, at my heaviest, I was 374 pounds.

Just putting that number on the page gives me anxiety—there’s a lot of judgment in three digits. But, I do so because many of you reading this might be in the same boat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest numbers, from 2018, peg obesity prevalence among adults in rural counties at 34.2%, significantly higher than the 28.7% of those living in metropolitan counties.

American farmers and food manufacturers arguably produce a safe, plentiful and cheap food supply, relative to other countries, and that’s something we should celebrate. Our grandparents and their grandparents could only dream of the fully stocked shelves of food that has longer shelf life that we have available to us at all hours of the day. From grocery stores, to convenience stores, to dollar stores and drive-throughs, and even over cyberspace, we are literally two clicks or a car ride away from food on demand, at a price point that nearly all can afford.

And yet, we have ironically created a problem that only the rich would have ever had to worry about, obesity and the related health problems it brings.

The start of a new year usually brings resolutions to diet, to exercise, to quit smoking or drinking, to change our behaviors for the better. But they often go by the wayside come February, and we’re back to our old ways. Look around our rural communities and you can see how it’s easy to get caught in the obesity spiral.

How many of us have the access to fresh fruits and vegetables over canned or frozen items that have been processed with added sugar and salt for preservation means? Are our public buildings, like our school weight rooms and tracks, open for the public to use after hours? Can we safely walk in our small towns on sidewalks that aren’t crumbling or in parks that have good lighting? Do we have access to health care professionals who can help us address obesity, reduce chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancers, arthritis, asthma and more?

If we want thriving rural communities, we have to address our citizens’ health needs. And it’s going to take commitment from us all to make the change. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are in the final steps to develop the next edition of the “Dietary Guidelines” for 2020 to 2025—a process that happens every five years. These guidelines reflect the current nutritional advice on what we Americans should eat and drink to promote health and reduce our risk for chronic disease.

In years past, the guidelines were criticized for many reasons. From the “excessive influence” of food companies lobbying for their interests, to more or less emphasis of one segment of the food pyramid over another, these aren’t as simple to hammer out as you might imagine. Considering these are the basis of our federal nutrition policy and programs, the foundation for nutrition education, even guide industries and organizations when they develop or promote food products it’s a big issue when they are being debated. Especially for those in rural America who are growing the crops and livestock that will eventually be made into the food that fills “My Plate.” And those of us rural Americans who battle obesity with every step and bite we take.

So, let’s all resolve to take a stand in 2020 and start moving for change in our communities, in our kitchens, and in our industry. The future of rural America is figuratively on our plates.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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