Experts suggest ways to win public-policy changes to fight obesity

Though the obesity epidemic shows signs of stabilizing, it still carries national security risks—negatively affecting education, agriculture and transportation—and public policy change can incredibly important in reducing obesity, Richard Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health, said at the Southern Obesity Summit in Louisville Oct. 7.

Kentucky and 42 other states have adult obesity rates of at least 25 percent, according to The States of Obesity.

Leon Andrews, senior fellow of the Institute for Youth, Education and Families discussed work with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, in which all 50 states and over 450 school districts are participating. The initiative includes new nutrition standards for school meals and ideas for encouraging exercise. Andrews urged attendees to ask their elected officials to participate in the campaign if they aren’t already. Share positive feedback and success stories with elected officials as well instead of just making requests, said Whitney Meagher, project director at the National Association of State Boards of Education. “They need to be reassured that they did a good job and that this is actually working.”

Jasmine Hall Ratliff, a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said every community has a slightly different culture of health, but everyone should have the option to make healthy choices no matter where they live. She recognized that fighting obesity is multifaceted, and children need to both eat better and move more. “There are many communities where access to healthy foods is impossible, and there are no playgrounds. We fund advocacy and policy change at various levels to make access to physical activity and good food the default instead of the exception.” She recommended checking out, a place to access resources and talk with other advocates.

Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, supports nonprofits working to prevent obesity through public policy, said Kim Milbrath, the initiative’s southern regional manager. Its campaign focuses on policy in six areas: improving nutritional quality of snack foods in schools; reducing consumption of sugary beverages; protecting children from unhealthy food marketing; increasing access to affordable healthy foods; increasing access to parks, playgrounds and bike paths; and helping youth-serving programs increase children’s physical activities. The initiative is funding projects in nine Southern states but not in Kentucky, at least yet.

Milbrath also offered practical advice for winning policy changes to fight obesity: Make sure you’re including and informing the right people, including business groups, parents, school administrators, groups with political power and all those who share the goal. Messages should be carefully constructed to clearly express the purpose of the campaign and to personalize it to the audience’s concerns. Recognize that contributions will vary, set clear expectations, decide exactly how the money will be used and include the issues important to the audience, like job creation.

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