By Maren Stewart, President and CEO of LiveWell Colorado
It is no secret that obesity is a growing health crisis. As recent statistics show, our nation is getting fatter, and at an alarming rate. Just 20 years ago, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Today, 12 states have obesity rates above 30 percent.
Even the nation’s leanest state, Colorado, is not immune to this epidemic. At its current obesity rate, 19.8 percent, Colorado would have been the most obese state in the nation just 15 years ago. If current trends continue, only 35 percent of Colorado adults will be at a healthy weight by 2017. Similarly, more than one in four of the state’s children are overweight or obese, a figure that is steadily rising.
Identifying the Problem
Obesity is admittedly a difficult problem to solve. It is not simply an outcome of individual choices, but also a product of environmental impacts, societal norms and limited access to healthful opportunities. To move the needle, we need an integrated, collaborative approach that recognizes the intricacies that contribute to the problem, brings the right people to the table to address the multiple impacts, and operates with a set of shared goals. Using a collective impact approach to address complex social problems allows us to achieve such results at scale.
LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit committed to reducing obesity by promoting healthy eating and active living, was established to lead this convergence effort in Colorado.
“Conducting” the Convergence Effort
A successful convergence effort operates similarly to an orchestra. Both are built from the collaborative efforts of a diverse group, with interested parties striving toward common goals and incorporating talents and resources to the best of their abilities. In either situation, success cannot be achieved without the strategic involvement of a collaborative leader.
Just as it is the responsibility of a musical conductor to be sure every seat in the orchestra is filled and that musicians are placed in the seats that best suit their talents, it is LiveWell Colorado’s responsibility to ensure that representatives from the right sectors are involved in relevant obesity prevention work, that gaps are identified and addressed, and everyone is collaborating in harmony. Together with our “orchestra,” LiveWell Colorado is committed to building strong relationships, forming trust and collaborating toward the same goal.
Forming the Approach
Working in concert with partners from multiple sectors – from healthcare systems to schools, governments, community planning, food systems and the business community – LiveWell Colorado directs a two-pronged approach to obesity prevention.
1. Encouraging, inspiring and empowering sustainable individual behavior change.
Clearly, the problem of obesity will not be solved if people continue to live unhealthy lives. LiveWell Colorado works with its partners to educate Coloradans about healthier choices and empower them to incorporate healthy eating and active living habits.
2. Improving access to and opportunity for healthy habits.
LiveWell Colorado is committed to informing and advancing policy efforts that create healthy places – neighborhoods, schools and worksites – essential to supporting healthy eating and active living. Coaching individuals to make healthier choices is one thing, but if they do not have access to healthy opportunities or their environments do not support healthier choices, our efforts will fall flat.
Guiding the Symphony
With partners from multiple sectors engaged in our mission, LiveWell Colorado conducts environmental, policy and cultural change to impact the contributors to obesity. Our “orchestra” works to make the healthy choice the easy, preferred choice using three actionable strategies:
1. Funding local community coalitions throughout the state that are focused on healthy eating and active living strategies. To date, LiveWell Colorado’s partner communities have directly benefited more than half a million Coloradans.
2. Informing and advancing multi-sector policy efforts with key stakeholders at local, state and national levels. Collaborative policy efforts have resulted in Colorado’s first-ever Food Systems Advisory Council, formed to create more access to healthy food statewide, as well as the recent passage of the state’s Physical Activity in Schools bill, which ensures more elementary school children are active during the day.
Strategies to influence organizational policy, such as LiveWell Colorado’s Freshen Up School Food Initiative, continue to increase the numbers of Colorado children who have access to and choose healthy foods at lunch.
3. Leading social marketing initiatives that inspire a culture shift and motivate sustainable, healthy behavior changes. LiveWell Colorado’s social change campaign has helped Coloradans experience more than 200,000 “gut checks” to figure out their own level of health at their current weight, and armed them with simple tools to incorporate healthy changes into their lives.
Obesity impacts the very core of American society. It is only through a convergence of efforts, in which shared objectives are accomplished across boundaries and among different stakeholders and organizations, that we will collectively impact the obesity epidemic and minimize its devastating effects on our communities.
About Maren Stewart: As the first president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado, Ms. Stewart is responsible for building a non-profit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado through the promotion of healthy eating and active living efforts. In this role, she leads the execution of LiveWell Colorado's strategic initiatives to advance policy, environmental and lifestyles changes aimed at increasing access to healthy opportunities for all Coloradoans. Ms. Stewart currently serves on the board of directors for the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts and the executive committee of the Aurora Economic Development Council. She has received numerous gubernatorial appointments including the Advisory Committee on Covering All Children in Colorado, the Children's Trust Fund, and the Committee to Promote Adoption and the Tobacco Settlement Task Force. Ms. Stewart's past experience includes a long tenure as Vice President of External Affairs for The Children's Hospital in Denver as well as a partner in a Colorado public affairs/lobbying firm.