Two weeks ago, hundreds of individuals working to address childhood obesity gathered in San Diego for the 2015 Childhood Obesity Conference. This year’s theme was “Collective Impact,” — meaning organizations from different sectors agreeing to solve a specific problem by aligning their efforts. Childhood obesity is a complex problem. Many changes to our communities, neighborhoods, and schools have made it difficult for children to eat a healthy diet and to be physically active. Increasingly, various organizations at national, state, and local levels are working together to make an impact on childhood obesity. This includes traditional healthcare and public health organizations as well as schools, municipal planning boards, police departments, businesses, and many others. While improvements are being made, Chelsea Clinton encouraged continuous collaboration in her keynote speech, emphasizing that “progress isn’t success.”
The latest national data indicate that more than a third (34.9%) of American adults and 17% of youth are obese.
Historically, advocates have taken programmatic approaches to obesity largely focused on individual behavior change. However, the obesity rates have remained unchanged in the past eight years, suggesting that innovative and more comprehensive approaches are necessary. Individuals encounter a number of obstacles to making healthy choices every day, including: incessant marketing of unhealthy foods; poor access to healthy foods in schools and in the community; and social and environmental factors such as crime, safety, and opportunities for physical activity. In order to reduce obesity, just providing education around how to eat right isn’t enough – we must create environments that support healthy behaviors.
Consider the example of sugary drinks, which are playing a central role in obesity: they are the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet, offer zero nutritional value, and are known to increase one’s risk for diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, and tooth decay. Although several cities and states have attempted to pass taxes on sugary drinks for the sake of public health, taxes are just one piece of a comprehensive strategy to change the social norms around these harmful products. Implementing public awareness campaigns, soda warning labels, healthy retail strategies, and restrictions on marketing in addition to employing taxes would increase the likelihood of success.
JSI has long emphasized the importance of collective impact in much of its obesity-related work. As the coordinating partner of MetroWest Moves, we successfully worked with schools to improve their wellness policies, supported municipal planning departments in adopting a complete streets policy, and worked with restaurant owners to offer healthier menu items. JSI conducted a large-scale evaluations of school-and community-based obesity prevention interventions to ensure the processes and impact of local coalitions are documented. And, also, we used the data collected in needs assessments to develop recommendations for systematically improving food access for vulnerable populations. Starting this Fall, JSI will lead the New York Obesity Prevention Center for Excellence to provide training and technical assistance to coalitions working to address obesity across the state.