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Promoting Healthy Communities and Reducing Childhood Obesity: Legislative Options

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State Legislatures are taking a more active role in considering policies to promote healthier communities and reduce obesity among residents, particularly school-age children. In the past, Legislatures often deferred policy development to local governments and school districts, recognizing that those entities were closest to the affected populations. Because evidence demonstrates that growing public health effects and rising health care costs are associated with poor nutrition and inadequate physical activity, Legislatures have begun to partner more with cities, counties and schools to create and fund programs designed to make active living and access to healthy food more a part of daily life. This increased level of interest is illustrated by the volume of state legislation proposed and enacted during 2007 and 2008.

Promoting Healthy Communities and Reducing Childhood Obesity: Legislative Options documents that trend during the 2007 and 2008 state legislative sessions. It builds on earlier reports prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures that tracked healthy community design, access to healthy food and childhood obesity legislation in 2005 and 2006. This report summarizes state legislation proposed and passed in two broad policy categories—Healthy Eating and Physical Activity and Healthy Community Design and Access to Healthy Food—divided into 17 topic areas. The first category addresses policy approaches aimed primarily at nutrition and physical education in schools. The second category focuses on the built environment—land use, transportation and agriculture options.

The number of topics is evidence of greater direct policy involvement by state Legislatures, although in partnership with cities, counties and schools that are primarily responsible for implementing state policy. The fact that Legislatures are broadening the range of issues addressed through legislation shows an equal understanding of how states can leverage local
action. During the last two years, for example, state legislation was proposed or enacted in 37 states on issues that dealt with physical activity or physical education in schools. Thirty-two states considered bills on school nutrition issues. On the built environment side of the active living/healthy eating equation, state Legislatures have considered or adopted laws on complete streets, transit-oriented development, food deserts and farm-to-school programs. In the past, these topics would have been left to local governments under broad land use authority. The Legislature’s guidance has become more focused on specific policy options, recognizing the essential role that other entities play in working directly with populations that stand most to benefit from policy interventions.

Support for this report was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its Leadership for Healthy Communities national program.