Two ChildObesity180 initiatives move forward, expand

ChildObesity180, an organization at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy that works to reduce rates of childhood obesity on a national level, is reaching new stages in the implementation of two of its initiatives.

Healthy Kids Out of School, an initiative that works with short duration, out-of-school programs to make them healthy environments for kids, is starting to scale its three-year regional pilot program up to the national level, according to Project Manager Megan Halmo.

The new Restaurant Initiative’s mission is to reduce excess calorie consumption among children when they eat in restaurants, according to Program Manager Vanessa Lynskey. The initiative works with members of the restaurant industry to build a business case for restaurants to show that healthier kids’ meals are a good business decision, Lynskey said.

Healthy Kids Out of School focuses on three areas to make out-of-school programs such as youth sports, scouting programs and 4-H healthier for kids, Halmo said.

“There’s ‘Drink Right,’ which is to drink water instead of sugary drinks; ‘Move More,’ which is to increase physical activity in all programs and ‘Snack Smart,’ which is, when snacks are served, make them fruits and vegetables as much as possible,” she said.

When Healthy Kids Out of School was started, it brought together CEOs of a number of the initiative’s national partner organizations including Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, YMCA, US Youth Soccer, Pop Warner and 4-H, among others, according to Halmo.

“We brought all those CEOs and executive directors together, and they agreed on [our] three principles … and they said their organizations would adopt them and they agreed to be healthier out-of-school-time organizations,” she said.

The initiative then focused on how to implement the principles on the ground, Halmo said. They received $1.5 million in funding from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation over three years to test program implementation in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, she said.

“We did trainings both in-person and online, we created the Scout Strong healthy unit award, we created supporting materials and resources, we created messaging and communication and really tried to get it integrated with all those programs at the local level,” Halmo said.

That three-year funding will be ending this summer, when Halmo and her colleagues will focus on scaling the initiative up to the national organizations and spreading Healthy Kids Out of School across the country.

“What’s cool is once these things start catching on, like we’re starting to see them do, there’s sometimes less work to do,” Halmo said. “It facilitates people getting excited about it themselves and wanting to pick it up themselves, rather than us having to push it on folks.”

The Restaurant Initiative has been in various stages of development for the past three years, according to Lynskey.

Healthy Kids Out of School is much further along,” Lynskey said. “They have a much clearer plan of what they’re doing, they’ve been implementing and evaluating for three years, they have some plans for national scale and expansion — while the Restaurant Initiative, while we’ve been working on it for three years, it’s a very tricky space, and so we’re still in the process of determining the best path forward.”

According to Lynskey, the Restaurant Initiative is pursuing its goal of reducing excess calorie intake by children at restaurants through two strategic approaches: industry engagement and evidence dissemination. She emphasized that these two strategic approaches are self-reenforcing. 

“We have a relationship with someone from the National Restaurant Association … so we’re not specifically working with any brands, we never have, we don’t take money from any brands, but we’d like to get their perspective on things so that we can really develop a strategic approach to the problem that considers all the relevant factors,” Lynskey said.

Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, research associate for the Restaurant Initiative, said they’ve been learning that restaurants are interested in and receptive to interventions that would make their menus healthier or changes to their restaurants’ environments that could promote healthier eating.

Anzman-Frasca explained that existing nutrition guidelines, including the National Restaurant Association’s Kids Live Well program, can be used as benchmarks to determine the accessibility of healthier and unhealthy kids’ meals. They also help in understanding the ways restaurants can promote increased uptake of healthier kids’ options, she said.

According to Anzman-Frasca, the initiative focuses on types of food served rather than portion sizes, and their research represents regions broader than just Boston or the northeast.

“When we do research, we’ve got a specific question in mind, and we really try to take the results of that research and put them into practice in our initiatives,” Lynskey said.