Linda Matzigkeit

For sounding the alarm about childhood obesity

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has admitted patients who weigh more than 500 pounds, and the pediatric facility treats type 2 diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, and sleep apnea—diseases once seen only in adults. When Children’s started asking questions, it was stunned to discover that although 40 percent of Georgia children were overweight or obese (second worst only to Mississippi), more than 70 percent of parents considered their kids’ weights normal.

0812_Feature_LindaMatzigkeit“We needed to wake up Georgia,” says chief administrative officer Linda Matzigkeit, who helped spearhead a controversial public awareness campaign of billboards, television spots, and social media with stark black-and-white portraits of heavy kids and hard-hitting messages like “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Children’s did not aim for shock value, but it was clear conventional messages weren’t getting through, says Matzigkeit. “Most of the parents were in denial,” she explains. “This is a very serious medical crisis that, if we don’t address it now, is going to be so out of control that it’s going to tax our healthcare system like we’ve never seen.”

The campaign—called Strong4Life—drew outcries from groups like the National Eating Disorders Association as well as media buzz. (Sample headlines: “Harsh,” NPR; “Shocking,” Washington Post WonkBlog; “Fat-Shaming,” Gawker.) But the campaign worked. Today it’s estimated that 93 percent of Atlantans are aware of the childhood obesity crisis here.

Strong4Life has moved into a second phase: Stop the Cycle. One element is a sensational time-lapse YouTube video that traces a man’s life from a heart attack at age thirty-two back to his unhealthy childhood—and has attracted nearly 200,000 views. However, billboard and social media messages are softer now: “Choose fruit, not fruit flavoring.”

Children’s has committed $25 million to the effort, with plans to raise another $25 million from sponsors. The goal: to knock Georgia out of the top-ten childhood obesity ranks in five years.

Whatever you think of Matzigkeit’s inflammatory approach, she catapulted a frightening public health crisis into daily conversation. Even more impressive, she got her own house in order first. In 2008 Matzigkeit launched an employee wellness program, also called Strong4Life. Children’s banned smoking, filled vending machines and cafeterias with healthy foods, added walking trails and gyms to all major locations, and created dozens of programs to help workers get fit. So far the hospital’s 7,000 employees have lost nearly 49,000 pounds. The initiative helped earn Children’s numerous regional and national top employer awards.

“No one loves kids more than Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta,” says Matzigkeit. “Our intent is not to harm. Our intent is to start a dialogue . . . As the largest pediatric healthcare provider in the country, it is our responsibility to stand up and tackle this issue.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.