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Vic Colman, JD, has increased the state’s capacity to change policies and environments to improve nutrition and physical activity. He accomplished this by convening diverse partners, aligning strategies, and setting a clear and consistent direction for communications and outreach.
While he is co-principal of Uncommon Solutions, a consulting firm, he is also known statewide as director of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition (COPC). Annually, he convenes a growing number of coalition members to develop a policy platform to guide work with policymakers, primarily at local and state levels. Coalition priorities over the past year included: standards for food purchased with state funds, active community design, beverage tax structures, and nutrition and physical activity standards in schools and child care settings.
Colman and coalition members engaged in three major state-level bills this past legislative session: the Institutional Food Purchasing bill, held over from the previous session (LINK to 2011 Partners article) and two transportation bills (LINK see more details in Active Community Environments article) that met the coalition’s goals for increasing active community design. While some of the bills were approved in committee and made it to the full legislature, none passed. “Nonetheless, I was really heartened to see how far Senate Bill 1217 and House Bill 2370 went in the legislature,” says Colman. “They may not realize it, but transportation advocates are actually doing the work of public health with these bills.”
Colman initially worked on public health campaigns around the issue of alcohol use and misuse in California. Working as a legislative aide for the Washington State Department of Health in 2000-2003, he helped the state figure out how it should spend the tobacco settlement funds negotiated by then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
He was aware that the policy and systems change approach used in the tobacco campaign was being adapted for the state’s first nutrition and physical activity plan. Colman says, “At that time, it was not clear what capacity the state had to facilitate healthier eating and active living.” To increase that capacity, Colman realized that public/private partnerships had to be forged in order to achieve greater efficiency and success in policy and systems change.
Along with key partners, he formed the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition in 2007 with initial funding from the Seattle Foundation. In the summer of 2008, it took two full days to develop their first policy platform. The Coalition has since convened several large summits with the purpose of bringing together elected officials and public health and foundation representatives.
The Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition was one of the nation’s first statewide coalitions devoted exclusively to healthy eating and active living. For a time, the distinctiveness of its strategy led to speaking engagements for Colman all over the country. Five years later, the coalition continues to grow its membership and networks, and its impact is widely valued. “Now no one is asking ‘Why am I in this room?’” says Colman. “Now they see the connections between their work and the need for state policies to support nutrition and physical activity.”
Colman described how COPC got involved in the institutional food purchasing bill: “The food procurement issue is a good example of an innovative policy approach. We had heard about the idea a few years back and thought it was an emergent issue. Once we talked it through, we realized it had a lot going for it both in terms of symbolic value as well as actual impact in the improvement of public food environments.” He went on to explain that regional and state officials needed to see the incompatibility between spending public funds to encourage citizens to eat healthier and the unhealthy food choices often available in public facilities and grounds.
Currently made up of 46 members, including non-profits, major hospitals, health foundations, and transportation advocacy organizations, the coalition develops fact sheets, hosts various topical workgroups, and engages in policy development at all levels of government. The next policy platform development process gets underway in late June 2012.
Coalition work is inherently decentralized and often without sustainable funding. The current state budget crisis, which has forced legislators to make some of the toughest decisions in recent memory, has made it difficult for COPC to push through some of its issues. In addition, these issues can be complex and without easy solutions. For example, Colman has seen some policy makers become fatigued in tackling the issue of nutrition in schools.
Colman wryly notes that one of the biggest barriers to his work is the fact that we all need to eat. “You can’t demonize food in the same way you can demonize tobacco and alcohol.” Tread too hard on messages about healthy food and there is the danger of coming off as the “nanny state” or “big brother.” One state legislator remarked at a committee hearing to “stay out of my refrigerator.”
Colman always has his eye on the next challenge and is game to adopt new strategies to reverse childhood obesity rates. In a departure from what Colman calls their usual “wonky” policy initiatives, the Coalition initiated a grassroots Soda Free Sundays Campaign (LINK http://sodafreesundays.com/). The calories in sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the leading causes of obesity. The Coalition obtained funding from Communities Putting Prevention to Work from Public Health – Seattle & King County to launch a website and social media tools. Participants “pledge” to avoid soda on Sundays. The successful campaign will be repeated this year.
Thinking of the future, Colman feels that changing state-level policies and environments in transportation will continue to have more success than nutritional changes. Younger legislators are less car-centric and they do not question the imperative for multi-modal planning.
Colman asserts, “The notion of ‘healthy communities’ is really getting into the public consciousness.” Reflecting on how many decades it took to reverse rates of tobacco use, Colman accepts that reversing rates of childhood obesity could take a while. But he and the rest of the coalition will be setting a policy platform for years to come that will prod policy-makers to broaden transportation choices and access to healthy food in communities, workplaces and schools.
Featured: June 2012
Nutrition and physical activity practitioners in Washington