Dueling obesity solutions

Gov. Nikki Haley (left) wants to tackle fat by restricting food-stamp purchases to healthy foods in an initiative she unveiled last month. State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said Haley's plan won't work, and he has started his own program to fight obesity.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Columbia — or anywhere for that matter — can’t find a lot to agree on. When it comes to brainstorming ways to help South Carolinians lose weight, it’s no different.

Gov. Nikki Haley wants to tackle fat by restricting food-stamp purchases to healthy foods in an initiative she unveiled last month. State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said Haley’s plan won’t work, and he has started his own program to fight obesity.

Both are making their cases on social media.

Sellers launched a month-long campaign this week called Healthy March. He is encouraging residents to lose weight by eating and drinking better, cutting out junk food, exercising and building “healthy habits.”

“Every time someone cheats on his or her healthy challenge, they must donate to the Healthy March fund,” the Health March website explains. “It can be 50 cents, a dollar or five dollars.” All the proceeds will be donated to the Harvest Hope Food Bank, serving Columbia, Florence and Greenville.

Healthy March is Sellers’ answer to Haley’s food-stamp program.

The governor wants to limit what shoppers can buy with their stamps — no more junk food, like chips, candy and soda. The state must request a federal waiver to restrict these purchases, because guidelines for the food-stamp program are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program would be the first of its kind in the country.

“This is acknowledging something that should have been acknowledged a long time ago,” Haley said when she announced her plan in February. “South Carolina is now in the business of doing things about the problems we have in our state and making them better.”

An estimated one-third of state residents are considered obese. Haley called it South Carolina’s No. 1 killer.

Sellers fired back on Twitter, challenging the governor, also a Bamberg County native, to test her proposal. He asked Haley to join him in a week-long experiment to live only on healthy foods purchased with food stamps.

He also restricted where they could buy that food — only stores in Bamberg and Colleton counties — to illustrate how fruits and vegetables are harder to come by in rural areas, he said.

Haley promoted her initiative on Facebook but ultimately declined Sellers’ challenge; her spokesman called it a political ploy.

Sellers denied that the challenge was politically motivated.

“I don’t think anything she and I do is contentious because we’re friends,” Sellers said.

Now Sellers is calling on his friend again. He said he wants Haley to share how she maintains a healthy lifestyle by writing a blog post on the Healthy March website. If she could donate $1 to the food bank, that would be great too, he said.

Haley’s office did not confirm if she will blog for the website, but issued this statement, “Governor Haley and members of her Cabinet are working to improve health for all South Carolinians, and she appreciates the work of legislators who share that goal.”

On Friday, Sellers said he did not know how many people will participate in the Healthy March challenge.

“(The website has) only been up for 24 hours, but I expect by the end of the weekend we should have some substantial numbers,” he said.

Ed Frongillo, chairman of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior, said the dialogue among politicians is just as important as speculating whether their initiatives will actually work.

“There’s a lot of shared knowledge out there. If that’s exchanged and there’s a legitimate process of coming up with the best ideas for South Carolina, that’s exciting,” Frongillo said.

Patrick O’Neil, director of the Medical University of South Carolina’s weight-management center, said it’s going to take more than one solution to solve the obesity crisis.

“It’s completely unrealistic to think that any particular initiative will be sufficient to turn this aircraft carrier around,” O’Neil said. “It’s just so big.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.