Columbus, Ohio

Columbus Takes a Stand for Kids’ Health

"It may take a village to raise a child, but when most of the village is offering your child a cupcake or soda, that’s a problem."
Carol Smathers
assistant professor at Ohio State University Extension

Defining the Issue

Over the past two decades, Ohio has been dealing with a persistent problem: a high rate of obesity among its children. In Columbus, the Growing Healthy Kids Columbus (GHKC) coalition decided that enough is enough.

With 32% of Columbus preschoolers and 28% of kindergarteners overweight or obese in 2013–2014 and 18.6% of 10- to 17-year-olds in Ohio obese in 2017, it was clear that something systemic needed to change.

“Many of the parents and caregivers our coalition serves experience high levels of stress."

Originally convened in 2009 to develop a childhood obesity prevention plan for the City of Columbus, the GHKC coalition is an ongoing partnership between Columbus Public Health and Ohio State University Extension, with more than 40 community, service, early childhood education, and health care organizations involved. The GHKC coalition has a successful history of tackling health issues affecting kids in the Columbus metro area.

“Many of the parents and caregivers our coalition serves experience high levels of stress,” said Carol Smathers, assistant professor at Ohio State University Extension and co-chair of the GHKC coalition. “When unhealthy food and beverage marketing targets these groups, it’s likely they will try to self-regulate their stress by eating sugars, fats, and salt.”

While the drivers of America’s childhood obesity epidemic are complex, public health experts have long pinpointed habitual sugary drink consumption as a key risk factor. Sugary drinks are defined as non-alcoholic beverages that contain added caloric sweeteners — including non-diet soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and sweetened coffee and tea beverages. Two-thirds of US children consume at least one sugary drink per day — a practice that dramatically increases their chances of developing chronic diet-related health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

“It may take a village to raise a child, but when most of the village is offering your child a cupcake or soda, that’s a problem,” Smathers added.

Addressing Health Inequities

Research also indicates that disparities exist in sugary drink consumption rates. Latino and African American children drink more sugary beverages than white children — likely the result of marketing campaigns by food and beverage companies that target children of color. These disparities contribute to inequitable health outcomes — such as increased rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity — that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Our team went beyond just translating materials into different languages. We created materials that included images of the community and actual beverages that are popular with certain groups.

In an effort to reduce sugary drink consumption among students, communities of color, and low-income populations with high obesity rates, the GHKC coalition created the Water First for Thirst (WFFT) campaign in 2013. The campaign focuses on promoting water consumption through changes to retail practices, marketing and advertising, and organizational policies.

“Families want to see faces they can connect with,” said Ali Segna, program manager at Columbus Public Health and co-chair of the GHKC coalition. “With that in mind, our team went beyond just translating materials into different languages. We created materials that included images of the community and actual beverages that are popular with certain groups.”

GHKC’s Water First For Thirst campaign banner
GHKC’s Water First For Thirst campaign banner

Since launching Water First for Thirst, the GHKC coalition has worked with many community partners — such as Columbus City Schools, YMCA of Central Ohio, Columbus Urban League Head Start program, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital — to promote water and reduce youth access to sugary drinks. Some of the campaign’s most successful sugary drink reduction strategies include encouraging water-only community events and meetings, making changes to vending practices, and reducing the price of water compared with other beverages.

In 2018, building on the Water First for Thirst campaign, the GHKC coalition launched the Targeted Marketing initiative. This program complements existing WFFT resources by educating community stakeholders and leaders about the beverage industry’s efforts to target certain population groups.

“Our trainings challenge both youth and adult community members to view targeted advertising and marketing materials from various perspectives,” said Smathers. “We’re always finding new ways to provide healthy options to families in our community.”

Creating Policy Change

The GHKC coalition’s continuing efforts to reduce sugary drink consumption and confront childhood obesity exemplify the significant positive influence that collaboration can have on public health outcomes.

Early in the development process for the Targeted Marketing campaign, the GHKC coalition enlisted ChangeLab Solutions to help them transition from the planning phase to policy implementation. In addition to providing technical assistance, ChangeLab Solutions conducted an all-day training for GHKC coalition members and external partners. This training centered on using systems and environmental change to confront targeted marketing.

Spoonful of Sugar Handout in Spanish
Spoonful of Sugar Handout in Spanish

To help guide the GHKC coalition’s goals for 2019, ChangeLab Solutions is working with them to develop the Columbus Food and Beverage Targeted Marketing Playbook, which contains a menu of evidence-based strategies for decreasing junk food and sugary drink consumption in the future.

“The playbook and training materials that ChangeLab developed have helped us move forward faster than we could have done alone,” said Segna. “What we’ve accomplished here in Columbus can serve as a model for other communities across the country that are looking to fight back against health injustices.”

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By Lyana Delgado, Hannah Bills, Ali Segna, Carol Smathers, & Melissa Peters

For more information, follow the work of the Growing Healthy Kids Columbus Coalition and the Targeted Marketing initiative.