A new study by researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and others shows how bringing together coalitions of individuals from government, public health, healthcare, public education, and other arenas to address a public health issue can result in better policies, systems, and environments for change.
Their research, published recently in the journal BMC Public Health, focuses on the epidemic of early childhood obesity affecting kids ages 2-5. It shows not only that the shift from working in silos to working across sectors works, but how it works.
“Bringing people together from across sectors helps them develop a shared understanding of the problem and devise whole of community cross- -system solutions,” says Christina Economos, dean ad interim of the Friedman School and the study’s first author. “This ‘systems thinking’ increases knowledge and cooperation. Perhaps more importantly, it diffuses that knowledge into the coalition members’ social and professional networks.”
The result, this new research demonstrates, is increased knowledge among more people in multiple sectors that leads to better policies, systems, and environments to create change.
14% of Young Children Are Obese
Almost 14% of children 2-5 years old have obesity, making them more likely to experience obesity during adolescence and adulthood and increasing their risk for diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers in later life. Early childhood obesity rates are significantly higher among Hispanic and African American children compared to white children.
These statistics and the health disparities they highlight haven’t changed in recent years, says Larissa Calancie, research assistant professor at the Friedman School and one of the study’s co-authors. “Anecdotally, and in small-scale studies, we know that encouraging parents to praise healthy behaviors in children, educating parents to continue breastfeeding or reduce screen time for kids, and engaging healthcare providers to talk about healthy weight with their young patients’ caregivers can be effective,” she says.
Barriers Across Communities
Unfortunately, parents, healthcare providers, and early childcare education professionals frequently experience barriers in adopting evidence-based obesity prevention strategies like these unless there are environmental and policy changes within the broader systems and community, Calancie says.
For example, the Women and Infant Children program provides vouchers for individuals with children under the age of 5 who have low-income to buy more nutritious foods. But parents need to know about the program and how to apply. Encouraging caregivers to praise healthy eating choices is an option only for those who have access to those healthier eating choices. Breastfeeding for working mothers can be a challenge unless there are accommodations in the workplace for mothers to pump breast milk.