How an Obese Town Lost A Million Pounds by Mick Cornett – TED Talk Transcript

Oklahoma City is a midsized town that had a big problem: It was among the most obese towns in America. Mayor Mick Cornett realized that, to make his city a great place to work and live, it had to become healthier too. In this charming TED talk, he walks us through the interlocking changes that helped OKC drop a collective million pounds (450,000 kilos).

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Mick Cornett

How many of you have been to Oklahoma City? Raise your hand. Yeah?

How many of you have not been to Oklahoma City and have no idea who I am? Most of you. Let me give you a little bit of background.

Oklahoma City started in the most unique way imaginable. Back on a spring day in 1889, the federal government held what they called a land run. They literally lined up the settlers along an imaginary line, and they fired off a gun, and the settlers roared across the countryside and put down a stake, and wherever they put down that stake, that was their new home.

And at the end of the very first day, the population of Oklahoma City had gone from zero to 10,000, and our planning department is still paying for that. The citizens got together on that first day and elected a mayor. And then they shot him. That’s not really all that funny — but it allows me to see what type of audience I’m dealing with, so I appreciate the feedback.

The 20th century was fairly kind to Oklahoma City. Our economy was based on commodities, so the price of cotton or the price of wheat, and ultimately the price of oil and natural gas. And along the way, we became a city of innovation. The shopping cart was invented in Oklahoma City. The parking meter, invented in Oklahoma City. You’re welcome.

Having an economy, though, that relates to commodities can give you some ups and some downs, and that was certainly the case in Oklahoma City’s history. In the 1970s, when it appeared that the price of energy would never retreat, our economy was soaring, and then in the early 1980s, it cratered quickly. The price of energy dropped. Our banks began to fail. Before the end of the decade, 100 banks had failed in the state of Oklahoma. There was no bailout on the horizon.

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Our banking industry, our oil and gas industry, our commercial real estate industry, were all at the bottom of the economic scale. Young people were leaving Oklahoma City in droves for Washington and Dallas and Houston and New York and Tokyo, anywhere where they could find a job that measured up to their educational attainment, because in Oklahoma City, the good jobs just weren’t there.

But along at the end of the ’80s came an enterprising businessman who became mayor named Ron Norick. Ron Norick eventually figured out that the secret to economic development wasn’t incentivizing companies up front, it was about creating a place where businesses wanted to locate, and so he pushed an initiative called MAPS that basically was a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to build a bunch of stuff. It built a new sports arena, a new canal downtown, it fixed up our performing arts center, a new baseball stadium downtown, a lot of things to improve the quality of life. And the economy indeed seemed to start showing some signs of life.

The next mayor came along. He started MAPS for Kids, rebuilt the entire inner city school system, all 75 buildings either built anew or refurbished.

And then, in 2004, in this rare collective lack of judgment bordering on civil disobedience, the citizens elected me mayor.

Now the city I inherited was just on the verge of coming out of its slumbering economy, and for the very first time, we started showing up on the lists. Now you know the lists I’m talking about. The media and the Internet love to rank cities. And in Oklahoma City, we’d never really been on lists before. So I thought it was kind of cool when they came out with these positive lists and we were on there. We weren’t anywhere close to the top, but we were on the list, we were somebody. Best city to get a job, best city to start a business, best downtown — Oklahoma City.

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And then came the list of the most obese cities in the country. And there we were.

Now I like to point out that we were on that list with a lot of really cool places. Dallas and Houston and New Orleans and Atlanta and Miami. You know, these are cities that, typically, you’re not embarrassed to be associated with. But nonetheless, I didn’t like being on the list.

And about that time, I got on the scales. And I weighed 220 pounds. And then I went to this website sponsored by the federal government, and I typed in my height, I typed in my weight, and I pushed Enter, and it came back and said “obese.”

I thought, “What a stupid website. I’m not obese. I would know if I was obese.”

And then I started getting honest with myself about what had become my lifelong struggle with obesity, and I noticed this pattern, that I was gaining about two or three pounds a year, and then about every 10 years, I’d drop 20 or 30 pounds. And then I’d do it again. And I had this huge closet full of clothes, and I could only wear a third of it at any one time, and only I knew which part of the closet I could wear. But it all seemed fairly normal, going through it.

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