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A policy approach for healthy food and healthy people

Principal Investigator
Donna Johnson, PhD, MS

Project Manager
Emilee Quinn, MPH

Public policies can have an impact on the health of entire populations. For instance, the rates of second-hand smoke exposure declined as policies eliminated smoking in high-density public places like restaurants and bars. With the rising concern over nutrition and obesity, many researchers and public health practitioners are looking at public policies as a way to improve the public’s health.

The Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network (NOPREN) is a national research network funded by the CDC whose mission is to identify, develop, evaluate, and disseminate public policies that improve nutrition and reduce obesity. The Health Promotion Research Center (HPRC) at the University of Washington houses one of the Network’s centers, which recently received funding for another two-year grant to continue their work in Washington State and on a national level. Donna Johnson, RD, PhD, an associate professor of nutritional sciences, is the project’s principal investigator.

“It’s a great national network, very engaged,” says Emilee Quinn, the NOPREN research coordinator. “It’s fantastic to have the resources to do collaborative and interdisciplinary research focused on policy.”

The HPRC center is the only center in the national network that has created a state-level Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network. The Washington Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network (WA-NOPREN) is comprised of multi-disciplinary faculty members from the University of Washington, public health practitioners, and policy advocates.

“We meet several times per year to choose projects and collaborate,” says Quinn. “We have network members from the University and other institutions, state and local health departments, the Department of Agriculture, and a variety of advocates.”

One area of focus for the WA-NOPREN has been menu labeling in restaurants, aiming to better understand the most effective methods for health departments to develop local requirements for restaurants to display nutritional information about the food they serve. WA-NOPREN examined the policy development across three local health departments, all of which took different approaches. Work from the national network, including the menu labeling study, was published in September in a supplement of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which is being made freely available to the public by the CDC.

The WA-NOPREN also served as advisors for the report, “Opportunities for Increasing Access to Healthy Foods in Washington State,” written for the state’s Access to Healthy Foods Coalition, which identified a number of potential polices to increase access to healthy foods. WA-NOPREN then contributed to an ensuing study of the perceived impact and feasibility of some of the suggested policies.

The HPRC NOPREN researchers are also excited to be co-leading a national NOPREN working group focused on addressing rural access to healthy food with researchers from Texas A&M University and others around the country. The group recently completed a concept-mapping project, which included collecting data from researchers and practitioners regarding key issues and research priorities related to access to healthy foods in rural communities. The group will use the findings to develop and disseminate a potential national research agenda for rural food access.

“It’s really exciting to get into food accessibility in rural settings,” says Quinn. “There is a lot to be learned, and we are connecting with terrific colleagues to improve our collective understanding of the topic.”

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