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Strategic Alliance  

April 19, 2011

221 Oak Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Tel: 510.444.7738
Fax: 510.663.1280



Introducing Strategic Alliance's Dialogue on Food and Activity!

Strategic Alliance is pleased to share the first installment of our new Rapid Response Media Network resource, Dialogue on Food and Activity. Whether we’re synthesizing coverage of community efforts to create safe and equitable places to play, tracking policy debates about healthy food access, or breaking down food and beverage manufacturers’ arguments against regulation, our goal is to provide the news analysis and talking points that you need to frame the events of the day to support effective local and statewide nutrition and physical activity policy efforts.


The "O" Word

The last few weeks have seen a spate of news coverage on policy debates related to food and activity taking place across the country. California’s soda tax bill, lawsuits over physical education, and New York City’s proposed nutrition standards for kids’ meals are just some of the hot topics.  Many articles we’ve seen have focused on the problem of obesity, and were critical of policy change efforts aimed at creating healthier environments. The common thread among them? They each used the “O” word – obesity – as code for “blame the individual."

Here are some of the stories:

  • An L.A. Times article, "Latino kids follow parents' lead when it comes to exercising (or not)," notes that Hispanic children have disproportionately high rates of overweight and obesity. According to the Times, Hispanic adults’ lack of activity “may be contributing to their kids' sedentary habits--and excess weight.” The article goes on to say that recent research linking parent and child activity levels means “maybe those habits of inactivity start early, and at home.”
  • A column published yesterday in the Minnesota Daily states that while “obesity should not be taken lightly” it is “entirely curable through self-discipline.” Its critique of school-based efforts to promote health bring the focus back to individual and parental responsibility: “A healthy school lunch does not a healthy child make. A child may not be eating Twix from the school vending machines, but what about Reese’s for breakfast at home?”
  • “If an individual's body mass index isn't a purely personal matter, what is?” reads the first sentence in an editorial published in last Monday’s L.A. Times. The article, "Should There be a Fat Tax?" goes on to say that concerns over chronic disease “have resulted in a raft of nanny-state proposals to shape the public's dietary habits.” Instead, the author prefers “the approach most recently proposed in Arizona," where officials hope to levy a $50 annual fee on some Medicaid patients who don't take steps to improve their health.” (Click here to see a previous Rapid Response alert on this story, complete with talking points.)
  • “Overweight city councilman pushes bill to ban toys in fast food meals to promote healthy eating” is the headline that ran in the New York Daily News.  In this story, the use of the term “obesity” focuses the reader on the weight of Councilman Comrie. The subtext here: the real issue is the Councilman’s own personal eating habits. Though it’s never said outright, obesity is used to distract from an important policy issue. The article’s closing quote? "Parents have to make choices….Parents should monitor what their kids eat."


Why we say no to the “O” word

Defining the problem as “obesity” unfairly stigmatizes individuals and can negatively impact efforts to create healthy community environments. Here’s how:

  • The focus on “obesity” oversimplifies a multi-faceted issue. It places blame squarely on the shoulders of the individual, without taking into account the social and economic influence of where people live, learn, work, and play. In this sense, the “O” word distracts public debates away from focusing on environmental and policy changes aimed at improving nutrition and activity.
  • It reinforces a pervasive stigma. The term itself is often imbued with value judgments and biases that associate overweight not only with poorer health but also poorer character, lack of education, and lack of self-control (e.g., overeating, lack of exercise, etc). Cruelly, such stigma may lead to mental health problems and subsequent chronic disease.


Here are some stories that get it right:

  • A summit held in Hamilton County, OH highlighted the positive steps the community is taking to advance health eating and active living, where community leaders are “working with school districts to make it safe for children to walk to school, which will increase children's physical activity.”
  • Research out of the University of Washington has found that families with an income level “that qualifies [them] for food stamp assistance makes it nearly impossible to put healthy and balanced meals on the table” says a recent article, "Obesity’s hidden factor: high cost of healthy meals." The author goes on to highlight proposals to increase affordability of fresh produce.
  • Mark Bittman soundly makes the argument that in order for people to choose healthier foods, they must have access to these foods. In his recent column, he highlights Philadelphia’s efforts to increase supermarkets and farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods and incentivize the purchasing of healthy foods.


Tips to guide your conversation

Lead with the environment.  Countering the “blame the individual” frame in your letters to the editor, op-eds, and conversations with the media requires that you shift the conversation upstream by describing the social, economic and physical environments that foster or hinder healthy behaviors. Paint a picture that describes why healthy communities matter: When neighborhoods don’t have clean parks, places to walk, vibrant retail, or healthy food available, everyone’s health suffers. 

We need policies that protect children and families. Policies that increase access to healthy foods and opportunities for safe physical activity and play protect everyone. When there are no safe and accessible places for children to play and a bag of chips is cheaper than an orange, individuals and families have the odds stacked against them.


Take Action

  • You may not always have time to respond to media stories with a letter to the editor. In those cases, and for the stories we’ve discussed above, be sure to post a comment online.
  • Write a blog, op-ed or letter to the editor of your local paper in support of local efforts to create healthy food and activity environments.
  • Read, "What Surrounds Us Shapes Us," a Rapid Response Framing Brief detailing how advocates can lead with the environmental frame to support community change.

Get something in the news? Send us a quick note so we can make sure your efforts are recognized.


The Strategic Alliance is reframing the debate on nutrition and physical activity away from a focus solely on individual choice and lifestyle towards one of environmental influences and corporate and government responsibility. Current Steering Committee members are: California Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness Program (CANFit), California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA), California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, California Park and Recreation Society (CPRS) , California Project LEAN, California WIC Association (CWA), Child Care Food Program Roundtable, Latino Health Access, Partnership for the Public's Health, PolicyLink, Prevention Institute, Samuels & Associates, and Public Health Law and Policy.

The Strategic Alliance is currently engaged in building a broad and diverse statewide membership. To join or for more information, please visit us on the Web, www.eatbettermovemore.org, or contact Phebe Gibson at 510.444.7738 or Phebe@preventioninstitute.org. And even if you're already a member, please forward this message on to your colleagues so we can continue to strengthen our coalition. Thank you!

The Strategic Alliance is reframing the debate on nutrition and
physical activity - from a focus solely on individual choice and lifestyle,
towards one of environmental influences and corporate and government responsibility.
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