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Using Collective Impact to Reduce Childhood Obesity: Considerations from a National Convening

By Risa Wilkerson on July 15th, 2015

About 1,700 people met in San Diego, CA, two weeks ago with one thing in mind: eliminating childhood obesity in the United States. Yes, it’s about children’s health—and so much more. Obesity is not only linked to many chronic diseases and illnesses, but is also associated with social and emotional challenges such as bullying and depression.

“Physical health impacts mental health. Academic success and student health go together,” said former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who spoke at the 8th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference, the nation’s largest, most influential collaboration of professionals dedicated to combating pediatric obesity/overweight. Giving our children the healthiest start and the best opportunity for a high-quality life is critically important for them and for us as a nation.

Success Requires Collaboration

While policy, systems and community environment change grounded the conversations about work in such contexts as schools, parks, food production and retail, I was listening for new connections people are making to move us to the next level of success.

The conference’s theme of collective impact challenged participants to consider uncommon and thought-provoking alliances along with the great need to more intentionally leverage community assets. It was hosted by the California Department of Health with many partners, including the California Department of Education, the Nutrition Policy Institute UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, The California Endowment and Kaiser Permanente. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others, provided funding.

We Haven’t Stretched Far Enough

It wasn’t easy to parse out the inclusion of new or cutting-edge partners, yet there was very clear agreement that collaboration is the only way we will create change that sticks. Furthermore, it is perhaps a sign of success that we are now considering allies from transportation, business, nonprofits, social services, education, housing and others as “traditional” health partners.

A couple of sessions focused on the intersection of industry (think soda companies), research organizations and nongovernmental organizations. These groups don’t always agree, and they admitted that sometimes they achieve collaboration only by first clashing. The good news is that progress is being made. One example is that food producers have reduced the calories in their food.

New Ideas Inspire More Ideas

Physicians are figuring out how to take their clinics to low-income children by providing services at local YMCAs and schools. The YMCA of the USA and the Healthy Weight Partnership also announced their collaboration to expand the MEND program to YMCAs across the United States. Dr. William Dietz, obesity expert and Director of the Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University said, “The YMCA’s plan to partner with health care providers to scale this intervention through its extensive national network is very encouraging.”

Finally, Chelsea Clinton spoke as the Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, which has built partnerships among governments, businesses, NGOs and others to strengthen health systems in developing countries, flight climate change and much more. She discussed improving global and domestic health and, when talking about collective impact, mentioned the Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which recruited the Coin Laundry Association to help address early literacy efforts. She then asked, “Why couldn’t we create a similar partnership to address childhood obesity?”

Who Else Should Be Involved?

What partners haven’t we thought of? How could children’s media networks or companies investing in technology, solar power, green design, hydroponic agriculture or other innovators assist in improving accessibility to healthy, affordable food and safe places to be active, and even strengthen the social networks of a community? One thing is certain: helping children achieve optimal health will require truly innovative connections.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.