Public Health Actions Against Obesity

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Obesity continues to be a major public health challenge.  Too many Americans are overweight enough that their health is suffering, with diseases like diabetes rising dramatically.  In Seattle 50% of adults and 22% of youth are overweight or obese. The problem is that healthy food is often expensive and not widely available, while unhealthy food is easy to get and heavily marketed.  And Americans do not have enough access to physical activity in daily life.

Public Health of Seattle and King County is a national leader in developing and implementing policies and programs that will help.  As we implement these, we will see real benefits in better health and quality of life, lower health care costs, and more productive and happy residents.

Here’s what we are implementing:

  • Guidelines for building codes that promote active design and access to water fountains.
  • Standards for nutrition and physical activity at childcare, after school programs, and recreation centers, along with implementation assistance.
  • Land use guidelines promoting physical activity, which have been adopted by the King County Growth Management Planning Council (see reference)
  • Guidelines for healthy products in vending machines.
  • An interactive educational exhibit at the Pacific Science Center.
  • Promotion and assistance activities for Healthy Corner Stores and Healthy Churches.
  • Arrangements to accept WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food assistance) at Farmers Markets.

Seattle’s Parks Department has launched a major campaign, called “Healthy Parks, Healthy You”, designed to make parks and recreation facilities the centers for physical activity and good nutrition that they logically should be.  Department staff recognized that they needed to be the models for the behavior that they are seeking to spread.  They began with steps to change the internal culture by providing staff access to community center exercise equipment, creating a staff weight loss challenge, providing healthy food along with nutrition and physical activity education at meetings and trainings, and fostering staff discussion about how to encourage and create conditions for healthy living..

They then moved on to implement program changes for the public:

  • 100% healthy products in vending machines.
  • Healthy meal policies for childcare and community programs, along with education on healthy cooking.
  • Gardens and community kitchens at Community Centers.
  • Drop off sites for Community Supported Agriculture baskets at 7 Community Centers.

Surveys demonstrate that these actions are creating results among participants, who report doing more exercise and changing diet and fitness behaviors.

King County has pioneered a Healthy Incentives program to provide financial incentives for personnel to engage in health behaviors.  They have reduced health care costs by $23 million in 2011 and $38 million in 2012 as a result.  Seattle’s School Based Health Centers (funded under the Families and Education Levy) are preventing obesity through providing messaging and counseling to students, and fostering cooking and gardening programs.  The “Farm to Table” program has brought together community organizations to provide healthier food at more than 50 meal sites that provide meals for low income children and seniors.

All of these programs, in combination with the many other actions of individuals, businesses, and communities, are starting to make a difference.  But they are only the beginning.  Changing the cultural norms around food, physical activity, and healthy eating will require an array of strategies and commitments. 

Too many parts of our social fabric discourage activities that can bring about better health.  We are hoping to rebalance that equation by creating the conditions that will make good choices easier and more affordable.  Those kinds of efforts will encourage the individual, family, and community choices that will bring about the results that we need to enable personal and community health.