Community Organizing for Healthier Communities: Environmental and Policy Outcomes of a National Initiative

Andrew M Subica, Cheryl T Grills, Sandra Villanueva, Jason A Douglas
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2016, 51 (6): 916-925

INTRODUCTION: Childhood obesity is disproportionately prevalent in communities of color, partially because of structural inequities in the social and built environment (e.g., poverty, food insecurity, pollution) that restrict healthy eating and active living. Community organizing is an underexamined, grassroots health promotion approach that empowers and mobilizes community residents to advocate for, and achieve, environmental and policy changes to rectify these structural inequities. This paper presents outcomes of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Communities Creating Healthy Environments initiative: the first national program to apply community organizing to combat childhood obesity-causing structural inequities in communities of color.

METHODS: Twenty-one community-based organizations and tribal nations (grantees) conducted 3-year community organizing-based interventions primarily designed to increase children's healthy food and safe recreational access. Grantees' policy wins (environmental and policy changes resulting from grantee interventions) were measured from 2009 to 2014 using semi-structured interviews conducted quarterly and 6 months post-grant, and independently coded and reviewed in 2015 by researchers and expert community organizers.

RESULTS: The 21 grantees achieved 72 policy wins (mean=3.43, SD=1.78) across six domains: two directly addressed childhood obesity by enhancing children's healthy food (37.50%) and recreational access (33.33%), whereas four indirectly addressed obesity by promoting access to quality health care (8.33%); clean environments (9.73%); affordable housing (8.33%); and discrimination- and crime-free neighborhoods (2.78%).

CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide compelling evidence that community organizing-based interventions designed and led by community stakeholders can achieve diverse environmental and policy solutions to the structural inequities that foment childhood obesity in communities of color.

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