Mark Fenton, one of the nation’s foremost experts on walking, is coming to Crawford County for three days in March to spur a dialogue among residents, elected officials, school administrators and business executives.

“We want people to see we have the potential to change the area’s health, and also its economy and long-term prosperity as side benefits,’’ said Marlene Willis, a member of the Live Well Crawford County Committee that held a conference call Thursday morning with Fenton at Pittsburg City Hall.

The committee’s membership includes department heads with the city, representatives of the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center and the Pittsburg School District, a local business owner, and representatives of the Kansas State Extension Service and the Crawford County Health Department.

Fenton, host of the PBS series “America’s Walking,” is former editor at large of WALKING Magazine. He was a five-time member of the national race-walking team and represented the U.S. in numerous international competitions. Now a consultant in rural and urban areas across the nation, he is a vocal pedestrian advocate and recognized authority on public health issues and the need for community, environmental and public-policy initiatives to encourage more walking and bicycling.

He said changing the area’s health would require changes in mindset, policies and budgets at the city, county, school board and corporate levels.

“My job is to tell you how to not end up having the next generation have a shorter life expectancy than you, which is precisely their destiny,” Fenton said during the call. “And I’m going to say that a lot of times — and I’m going to look people right in the eye, and I’m not going to let them off the hook — that’s why you have me.”

Last year, Crawford County was ranked 88th in the state for health by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Kansas has 105 counties.

Today, Kansas’ average adult obesity rate is at 29 percent. That’s 827,404 people who weigh 20 percent or more above what’s considered normal for their age and gender.

Kansas also is one of seven states to have doubled its obesity rates in just 15 years, and is the state with the fourth-fastest growing obesity rate, after Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee. Missouri has the 16th-fastest growing obesity rate.

Southeast Kansas is particularly bad: Cherokee County has the poorest overall health in the state, and both Crawford and Cherokee counties have among the highest obesity rates in the state at 31 percent.

In the past year, Live Well Crawford County has held community conversations; given several thousand dollars in mini grants for farmers markets, walking and biking trails and healthy concessions; and this year began regularly presenting Apple Awards to businesses or individuals who help the community lead healthy lives.

Fenton said improving the county’s health should be something leaders should be on board with, as it has far-reaching economic affects. Spending money on sidewalks so children can walk to school means districts can save huge dollars on busing — an idea Tailwind Cyclists owner and committee member Roger Lomshek said other cities have started to embrace.

Having access to hiking and biking trails also keeps young families from moving away and could attract families to the area. That, in turn, would improve the business climate and reduces public health costs, Fenton said.

The committee is finalizing Fenton’s schedule. It will include an audit of walking routes in Pittsburg and Girard — whose school district received a Safe Route to Schools grant for sidewalks — as well as presentations to the Crawford County Commission, the Girard City Council, the Pittsburg City Commission, and to business executives and school administrators before the annual Student Government Day at Memorial Auditorium.

Kristin Thomas, a committee member and employee of the Crawford County Health Department, said she would like Fenton to “raise the energy level, get people excited about what the potential is for doing something really great here in our community.”

“We are still trying to get out one common message,” she said. “That’s what we’re struggling with.”

Expert on tap

Health expert Mark Fenton’s visit to Southeast Kansas is slated for March 25-27.

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