FORWARD (Fighting Obesity Reaching a healthy Weight Among Residents of DuPage) “lead[s] DuPage County through a broad-based community coalition in promoting effective and sustainable policy, system, and environmental strategies for children and families to achieve a healthy weight.” Over 1 million people live in DuPage County in Illinois, U.S., with an overweight or obesity rate of 56 percent for adults and 34 percent for youth ages 2-18. Food Tank spoke with Ann Marchetti, Consulting Director, and Rebecca McFarland, FORWARD Coordinator, about community organizing and making change happen.
Food Tank (FT): Can you explain FORWARD’s relationship with the DuPage County Health Department?
Ann Marchetti (AM): FORWARD began in May 2009 by a group of citizens concerned about the obesity rate in DuPage County. Instead of creating a new non-profit, a partnership with the DuPage County Health Department was established. FORWARD is a private/public partnership with two full-time staff members and a consulting director.
FT: How does nutrition fit into the overall picture of obesity prevention in DuPage County?
Rebecca McFarland (RM): FORWARD works to increase access to nutritious and affordable foods. We know that it can be difficult to make good choices when it comes to food, especially when marketing campaigns for processed foods target children. We strive to impact policies and systems around nutrition, but we also recognize that education is important to support change.
FT: What are some of the methods that you’ve used to increase nutrition access and/or getting people to think seriously about what they eat?
AM: We realized right away that we are not nutrition experts. As a result, we recruited nutrition experts to serve on our Nutrition Task Force. They guide our priorities related to making healthy foods available, accessible, and affordable. Since then, we’ve developed two main strategies on a county-wide level. First, we are working with the Building a Healthier Chicago initiative to expand their program, “Fresh, Innovative, and Tasty,” or F.I.T. The program highlights restaurants that offer nutritious choices. Second, FORWARD is focusing on workplace wellness. We’ve had great success working in partnership with 5 local hospitals to improve their food and beverage offerings. We hope to use this as a model to expand to other DuPage businesses.
RM: Another method FORWARD has been successful with is promoting the expansion of community gardens. In August of 2013, FORWARD and the Dupage Government Environmental Committee co-hosted a community garden workshop. Not only was the event successful, but since then we have worked with community partners and gardening experts to create an online forum for those interested in expanding and promoting community and school gardens.
In 2011, FORWARD adopted CLOCC’s 5-4-3-2-1 Go!® Campaign. This campaign promotes five servings of fruits and vegetables, four glasses of water, three low-fat dairy servings, two or less hours of screen time, and one or more hours of physical activity every day. This message is now in DuPage County schools, libraries and physician offices with plans to expand.
FT: What are the biggest challenges an organization like FORWARD faces in terms of behavior change?
RM: It’s important to remember that obesity is a very complex problem. DuPage County has 1 million residents, 32 municipalities, and 42 separate school districts, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. We understand, all too well, that there are many factors that affect obesity, like time, money, and food access, and not all of these can be addressed at one time.
AM: We’ve been very fortunate to have all of the groups that we’ve worked with in DuPage really embrace what we’re trying to do. FORWARD has made a point to not lecture or shame people, but to look at their current resources and say, “what can you do today and what seeds can we plant for tomorrow?”
FT: Can you tell me about your biggest successes so far?
RM: We’ve worked closely with the five hospital systems serving DuPage County. In the summer of 2012, Vanguard Health system in Chicago announced that they were banning sugar-sweetened beverages. This served as a catalyst and motivating factor for inspiring the health systems serving DuPage, who all agreed to work collaboratively on creating healthier food and beverage environments.
FT: Is this type of collaboration being replicated anywhere else? Do you have any advice for communities who may want to initiate a similar program?
AM: There are a lot of similar collaborations happening all over the country at the city, county and community levels. One thing that is very important to remember when doing this type of work is that while money is important, relationships are paramount. FORWARD started our work by developing relationships and bringing people together around a shared vision and responsibility for our residents. This has been instrumental in our success, including leveraging resources to complete our work.