Healthy communities: why public policy?

Creating healthy communities, where the healthy choice is the easy choice, can be complicated.

Family plays in kiddie pool outside

Everyone plays a part. Certainly, kids and families can learn to make healthier choices. Schools, child care providers, churches, and youth organizations can offer healthier meals and snacks, build in physical activity time, and teach healthy choices. And all of us adults can model healthy choices for the next generation.

So there’s a lot we can do individually. But research consistently shows that private, individual actions are not enough to create conditions so that most community residents can sustain healthy weight and healthy lifestyles.
There’s a role for public policy.

Four young children smile with their arms around one another

In Anchorage, Alaska, and in New York City, officials passed laws that require child care providers to serve healthier food and strengthen physical activity. The states of Alaska and New York also created and funded Farm-to-School programs so schools can get and serve more fruits and vegetables. As part of a national study called the Childhood Obesity Declines Project, researchers found that rates of childhood obesity actually went down in these communities. So when coupled with other initiatives in a community, the right public policy can help communities get healthier.

Healthy public policy can take different shapes. Local and state lawmakers may approve funding to improve parks or incentivize healthier food in corner stores. They might prioritize sidewalk repairs in neighborhoods that have few transportation options, or fund new signals and crosswalks to make walking safer and easier. It includes committing to address pedestrian and bike safety in future street development, which is what Indianapolis and Westfield did in passing “Complete Streets” policies. Lawmakers have also required anonymous weight screening of school-age kids in order to monitor trends in childhood obesity. Others have created expert committees to recommend actions to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthy communities.

Two boys ride on a bike and a big wheel in the fall

Sometimes healthy public policy makes bigger headlines. Soda taxes—a tax on beverages with added sugar—have been passed in half a dozen American cities. Soda taxes are controversial, but research consistently shows that the taxes are associated with reduced purchasing and sometimes reduced consumption of sugary drinks. The taxes are so new that we don’t know yet if they help to reduce obesity rates among adults or kids. Good public policy—for health, as for anything else—requires lively public debate and the best information that science can provide.

Being and staying healthy is a juggling act. Even when we know the healthiest choice to make, it may be difficult to do it. Plans to eat a healthy dinner together at home fall apart if the closest food store is too far away to get to easily. The playground and trail at the park are great, but if the park is across a busy street, families may decide children cannot go unaccompanied.

Families accommodate the juggling act all the time—we’ll eat together at home tomorrow instead, and mom, dad, or grandma can take children across the busy street to the park on Saturday. But in the compromises, healthy doors close. Dinner may more often be unhealthier fast food, and kids may spend more time indoors, in less active ways. Good public policy that encourages pedestrian-friendly streets and healthy foods in stores, for example, can help families live more healthy, more often.