Research Spotlight: Fighting Obesity at the Local Level

Research Spotlight: Fighting Obesity at the Local Level

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Almost 40 percent of adults in the United States are obese — and local health departments can play a key role in reducing this statistic.

“Local health departments are well positioned to address obesity, particularly when it comes to policy,” said Dr. Erika Martin, associate professor at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy and faculty affiliate at the School of Public Health. “They have a great understanding of their local communities and engage with community partners across sectors to generate collective impact. However, not all local health departments’ involvement in obesity policy is the same.”

So how many local health departments are involved with obesity policy — and what factors are associated with increased involvement?

Recent research from alumna Wenhui Feng, PhD ’19, supervised by Dr. Martin, found that almost half of local health departments reported no involvement with local obesity policies. About one-third had low involvement, and only 22.5% were involved in five or more approaches. The most common ways that local health departments were involved in obesity policy were through breastfeeding promotion, encouraging physical activity in schools, and reducing unhealthy food in schools.

“Higher obesity prevalence in the community was associated with more policy involvement from the local health departments,” says Feng, who is currently an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. “This suggests that local health departments are focusing on their communities’ needs.”

The organizational capacity of the department seemed to play a role, as well. Those with larger workforces, accreditation, or local boards of health with advisory were more involved in obesity policy. No low involvement in obesity policy was found concentrated in particular states, indicating that state health departments could consider providing more state-level obesity prevention policies.

Data for the study was taken from a national survey of local health departments in 2016. Full results from the study can be found in Preventive Medicine. This work received the Best Poster on Public Policy award from the American Political Science Association Public Policy Section.